Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer won his place in the top rung of national power in January. After both Senate seats in Georgia surprisingly turned Democratic in late runoff elections, New York’s senior member jumped from minority leader to top of the heap.
But for the 70-year-old lawmaker now in his fourth term, maintaining his mojo becomes a high-wire act. Perhaps the dangers of slippage go unnoticed in the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s Democratic presidency. Schumer leads only 50 of the 100 members, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tiebreaker — a fragile grip.
And the political safety net set below the wire might fray. Promoting an ambitious Biden agenda, with so many moving parts, depends on Schumer keeping the likes of conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Independent-not-Democrat Bernie Sanders of Vermont in the same camp. And by signaling partisan resistance, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky seems bent on shaking Schumer’s tightrope.
The test is dramatic. How much can Schumer pull off? All we can tell is that the pace of Schumer’s usual ubiquitous schmooze-and-push among the players, big and small, has picked up.
This week especially, we saw him everywhere.
He appeared in an eye-catching bright blue suit for Biden’s first address to the Congress on Wednesday, legs stretched on the lush carpet before him, black-masked and socially distanced.
A little more than an hour earlier, he finessed a brief battery of questions from MSNBC’s Joy Reid about a voting-rights proposal Manchin is reluctant to support without GOP backing. Schumer said his majority would give Republicans some time to cooperate and negotiate but not too much before trying one-party action.
Dissent in the conference from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona threaten proposals for which Schumer hears loud demands from progressives in New York, such as a federal $15-per-hour minimum wage.
On Thursday, Schumer met with families of some who died at the hands of police. But since most legislation in the Senate still requires 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, the House-approved George Floyd Justice in Policing Act remains stalled.
In his home state, Schumer has long earned a reputation for fervently and frequently promoting his role in local projects and proposals large and small. Last Sunday, he kept up the old style by announcing that federal work on the shoreline surrounding Montauk Lighthouse would commence next month. On Monday morning, he was in upstate Malta for an announcement that the company GlobalFoundries would move its headquarters there from California’s Silicon Valley.
That’s all on brand. But political twists and turns may lie ahead for Schumer in New York, too. In one highly unusual circumstance, he joined the rest of the state’s Congress members last month in calling for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to resign in the wake of sexual harassment allegations and an uproar over the reporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. The risk is that both men could end up in the awkward position of running for reelection next year on the same statewide ticket, handing Republicans a chance to play on the conflict.
Winning a fifth term in a statewide post is rare, but it is hard to foresee anyone at the top of the U.S. Senate getting bounced by their state’s voters. Chatter about a younger, more strident progressive giving Schumer a serious primary run is on the wane. But before all that emerges, Schumer has complicated tests laid out for him, this time with national resonance.
Dan Janison is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.