Schumer key to Senate's immigration overhaul
WASHINGTON - There were more than a few doubters when Sen. Charles Schumer took the place of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy in 2009 as the Senate's point man in crafting an overhaul of the U.S. immigration system.
But with the Senate's 68-32 vote Thursday passing the most sweeping immigration legislation in more than two decades, doubts about Schumer's legislative abilities have been put to rest, say analysts, immigrant advocates and even the bill's foes.
That assessment fits with a gradual shift in Schumer's reputation from an aggressive, press-hungry Democratic partisan from New York to a broker willing to compromise with Republicans to pass bills, said scholar Norman Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"He's changed as a legislator in the Senate to where he's now the broker," Ornstein said. "Chuck is becoming a pivotal player, not just the stereotype of him chasing cameras."
As he tried to win Republican votes, Schumer had to balance his desire to stick to principles -- especially providing a path to citizenship for the 11 million in the country illegally -- with a need to compromise.
In the most controversial deal that sealed the bill's passage, Schumer played a key role in negotiating the breakthrough amendment on border control, adding 20,000 guards, 700 miles of fence and drones, at a cost of $46 billion.
But Schumer still fell short of winning the 70 votes he repeatedly said was needed to influence the GOP-controlled U.S. House to act on the Senate bill.
"When we said 70, that was our utmost goal," Schumer said after the vote. "We're very, very happy with 68."
Schumer served as the quarterback and deal maker of the "Gang of Eight" -- the four Democrats and four Republicans who wrote the bill and led it to Senate passage.
Schumer took on that role reluctantly four years ago by becoming chairman of the Senate subcommittee on immigration after others had turned the post down. He replaced Kennedy when he fell ill and later died.
At that time, Mark Krikorian, of the Center for Immigration Studies, an opponent of the bill, hailed the replacement of the iconic Massachusetts Democrat by the brash New Yorker because "the push for amnesty is now in less capable hands."
Last week, Krikorian reassessed Schumer and said, "Yeah, well, I was wrong, because he's a pro when it comes to cutting deals."
Frank Sharry of the pro-immigration America's Voice and a supporter of the immigration bill, said he revered Kennedy but gave Schumer credit.
"People call him a deal maker as if somehow that's bad," he said. "When it comes to immigration reform, he was the deal maker we needed."
Schumer brokered the deal between business and labor on visas for temporary low-skilled workers, Sharry said, and a deal with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) on high-tech workers.
After the vote, Schumer acknowledged he was just one of several key players, citing several others, including Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
He also has cited the new political climate after Latinos voted heavily Democratic last year; the coalescing of a broad supportive coalition; and the maturing of pro-immigrant activists into more politically savvy players.
Yet Schumer also remained a bit of a polarizing figure.
Republican foes of the bill pointedly put Schumer's name on amendments they opposed. Immigrant rights activists complained about how much Schumer was willing to negotiate away to win votes.
Patrick Young, vice chairman of the Long Island Immigrant Alliance, said Schumer often said he wanted to achieve what Kennedy couldn't.
"I think he's had a singular will to pass this for four years," Young said. "To do that, you need both a conscience and a way to get to yes."