When President Barack Obama hands over power to Donald Trump on Jan. 19, U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer will become the most powerful Democrat in the country. As the Senate minority leader he will lead a conference of 48 members who could serve as potentially the only legislative check on the power of Trump and the Republican majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.
In short, Schumer may have to become the obstructor-in-chief, blocking legislation or appointments that Democrats cannot stomach. Current rules in the chamber allow any 40 senators to block bills or appointments from being passed through filibuster – though Schumer would be wise to use discretion in exercising this power.
Early indications are that Schumer may not be a legislative wall so much as a drawbridge coming out of the wall, opening to work on some deals like reforming Obamacare or even crafting immigration reform, but closing tightly when it comes to things like building an actual wall on the Mexican border or trying to push through ultraconservative judges to the courts.
“The reason Chuck has been so successful in the Senate is his ability to sit down, chat with people and compromise when necessary,” said Mike Morey, who served as communications director for Schumer before joining public affairs firm SKDKnickerbocker. “I think from the Democratic side he will bring something that has been missing in the Senate for a very long time. Hopefully he will have the same willingness from the other side of the aisle in the Senate.”
David Catalfamo, a Republican strategist who worked for former Gov. George Pataki, said he sees both Trump and Schumer fundamentally as “dealmakers.” “Say what you want about Donald Trump, but he is not an ideologue,” Catalfamo said. “And I have never really counted Sen. Schumer as an ideologue.”
Trump’s campaign was in many ways predicated on the idea that things don’t work in Washington, D.C., and that he would, for lack of a better term, blow things up. If he follows through on that campaign promise, the dynamic that will take shape in the chamber may not be a conventional one based on ideological lines, but rather one pitting anti-establishment lawmakers against the traditionalists. It’s entirely possible that Schumer and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell could be partners in standing up against Trump on certain issues. Or Trump and Schumer could form alliances to try and move legislation that some of the more conservative members of the Senate oppose.
As state Democratic Executive Director Basil Smikle pointed out, “Donald Trump is not a true Republican. I think both Democrats and Republicans are nervous about their future.”
What the relationship between Trump and Senate Republicans will look like is a mystery at this point. “Is he going to work with the Republican Senate?” asked Iona College political science professor Jeanne Zaino. “He has made some real enemies there.”
Zaino even suggests that something similar to the Independent Democratic Conference in New York’s state Senate could emerge in the U.S. Senate, at least on some issues like Trump’s opposition to free trade.
“If there was enough tension between Trump and the Senate Republicans, you could find some kind of independent Democratic movement to work with Republicans and shore up that larger majority,” she said.
Vice President-elect Mike Pence may end up playing a major role as well.
“I think Chuck Schumer could be Mike Pence’s new and good friend, because he is going to have to be the one who helps manage the Senate,” Smikle said. “I don’t think (Mitch) McConnell will have the credibility among Trump supporters to actually deliver anything, so I do see a stronger role for Mike Pence in moderating Donald Trump.”
Likely the first test of this new dynamic will be the Affordable Care Act, known by many as “Obamacare.” Republicans have been calling for the demise of the landmark health care reform legislation for years, and Trump ran on a repeal-and-replace platform. But despite having a Republican in the White House and the party controlling both houses of Congress, it won’t necessarily be so simple.
“The reality is that (Trump) won’t have the votes to repeal (Obamacare) because of Schumer,” Catalfamo said. “And from that point of view there clearly are things that can be done to make it better and I think it is in everybody’s interest to lift the burden off small businesses, but also maintain many of the positives of Obamacare.”
If Trump is true to his deal-maker background, then we can expect some kind of compromise to be reached where Schumer and Senate Democrats have a say in how the legislation is crafted to either replace or amend Obamacare.
“Schumer can work across the aisle with some of his more moderate colleagues and figure out how to actually fix it,” Smikle said. “And actually take some examples from Republican governors like John Kasich who actually expanded medicaid in Ohio, even though he didn’t like the Affordable Care Act, but he realized the benefit it would have. And certainly the benefits have gone to Republican voters in red states.”
If Trump and Republicans insist on repealing the ACA and replacing it with something Senate Democrats couldn’t stomach, then Schumer may indeed be forced to become a wall.
“Chuck is tenacious,” Morey said. “And Chuck is willing to stand up and put up a fight when one is necessary to protect core values that Americans hold.”
Catalfamo, for one, hopes it doesn’t come to that. “The election shows we are a 50/50 nation,” he said. “I don’t think there is a clear ideological mandate here. There is a mandate to get things done.”
There is no real indication yet of the track that Schumer plans to take. He spoke with president-elect Trump on Wednesday and issued a statement congratulating Trump, as well as McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.
He went on to suggest the Senate Democratic conference is still determining its approach. “Senate Democrats will spend the coming days and weeks reflecting on these results, hearing from the American people, and charting a path forward to achieve our shared goals and to defend our values,” he said.
But the best path forward for Democrats may still end up being obstruction, Zaino suggests, considering it worked well for Republicans for the past two election cycles. “Pundits kept saying that (Republicans) are going to get killed at the ballot boxes, and the exact opposite happened.”
But Smikle doesn’t expect Schumer or Senate Democrats to take an obstructionist path, arguing that it is not in the nature of the party. “Obstruction turns people off,” he said. “And then you can’t manage that after the fact. You can’t control it after the fact.”
One area where Democrats may be able to advance their agenda is immigration reform. Republicans may be willing to work with them on the issue in an attempt to reflect the changing demographics of the nation. And Trump and Schumer may also be able to find common ground on other issues like tax reform and infrastructure investment.
“Where the rubber will meet the road is on the Supreme Court nominees,” Catalfamo said. “That is where we can see the most dissonance, mostly because of the senator’s responsibility to his party and to Democrats across the nation.”
Of course, the most obvious place where Schumer could serve as a wall to Trump’s agenda is “the wall” itself.
“The wall clearly is something that has metaphorical meaning beyond securing the border,” Catalfamo said. “Every politician of every stripe will agree with securing the border, but building a wall and having that stand as a testament to that rhetoric will be a hard place for Democrats to go.”