Chuck Schumer Looks to Bring Biden’s Vision to Life

The Senate majority leader, marking his own 100 days in charge, is responsible for turning sweeping Democratic plans into law. It’s a tall order.,

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WASHINGTON — President Biden laid out his ambitious vision for a post-pandemic America on Wednesday night. Now it is up to Senator Chuck Schumer to make it a reality.

Mr. Schumer, a New York Democrat and the majority leader, insists that he is willing to negotiate with Republicans on the president’s second monumental piece of legislation, seeking a consensus that some of the moderate Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, are demanding.

But it is already clear that the odds of such a compromise are vanishingly slight, leaving Mr. Schumer with an exceedingly difficult path to delivering on Mr. Biden’s promises.

With Republicans suffering sticker shock from more than $4 trillion in new spending proposals outlined by Mr. Biden, and offering their own infrastructure package that is a tiny fraction of the cost, the gulf between the two parties could not be larger. Yet a handful of Democrats who could be crucial swing votes believe it is misguided and politically dangerous to pass legislation this big without buy-in from the other party.

Mr. Schumer said he was willing to give efforts at bipartisanship some time, but with a tight window to push through any major legislation before the political warfare of the midterm elections drown out any chance of making a law, his patience extends only so far.

“Now look,” he said in an interview this week in his Capitol leadership suite, “there’s a number of people in our caucus who believe strongly in bipartisanship and want us to try that. And that’s fair. And we will. And we’ve made a good start.”

He pointed to some modest measures like a water projects bill that passed on Thursday with support from both parties. But on crucial components of Mr. Biden’s plan — like the tax increases on high-earners and corporations to pay for it — there is no such middle ground to be found.

While Mr. Schumer awaits bipartisanship, he is preparing for procedural war — a prospect growing more likely considering the extraordinary scope of Mr. Biden’s emerging agenda.

“If and when it becomes clear that Republicans won’t join us in big, bold action, we will move in that direction” without them, Mr. Schumer acknowledged.

He will not do so on his own. Mr. Biden, who has decades of experience and relationships in the Senate, will play a critical role. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, has a narrow margin of control, but a wider one than Mr. Schumer’s, and House rules that give her considerably more leeway to push past Republican opposition.

But already this year, Mr. Schumer has shown that he is willing and able to move big legislation through the evenly divided chamber without any Republican support, as he did when he held Democrats together behind Mr. Biden’s nearly $1.9 trillion pandemic-era stimulus law.

For now, Mr. Schumer is putting the onus on others to show that they can produce a compromise. Republicans this week presented their own $568 billion infrastructure blueprint, which includes less than one-tenth the amount of new spending that Mr. Biden has proposed for public-works projects. The president welcomed that effort in his speech on Wednesday, saying he was open to hearing competing ideas, while cautioning that “the rest of the world is not waiting for us.”

But Republicans have dismissed the outreach as insincere, accusing Mr. Biden and Mr. Schumer of offering what Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, called a “multitrillion-dollar shopping list that was neither designed nor intended to earn bipartisan buy-in.”

“We heard about the so-called jobs plan, packed with punitive tax hikes at exactly the time our nation needs a recovery,” Mr. McConnell said on Thursday. “We heard about the so-called family plan, another gigantic tax-and-spend colossus.”

“Our Democratic friends,” he added, “have become addicted to divide-and-conquer.”

Mr. Schumer, in concert with Mr. Biden and Ms. Pelosi, has not been shy about reaching for what he calls “big and bold” achievements while he has the chance, with Democrats in control of Congress and the White House — a circumstance that might end in 2022, when Republicans could reclaim House and Senate majorities.

That reality has defined Mr. Schumer’s first 100 days just as it has Mr. Biden’s.

ImageA food distribution center in Chicago. Mr. Schumer and Democrats see themselves as having surpassed expectations with a broad $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill already on the books.
A food distribution center in Chicago. Mr. Schumer and Democrats see themselves as having surpassed expectations with a broad $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill already on the books.Credit…Lucy Hewett for The New York Times

It was apparent in early January, when two Georgia Democrats pulled off upset victories, putting Mr. Schumer in control of the Senate with the barest possible room to maneuver — a 50-to-50 margin, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as tiebreaker. He said the weight of the task hit him as he scrolled through Georgia runoff returns in the early-morning hours of Jan. 6.

“I realized the huge responsibility on the shoulders of our Democratic majority, narrow though it is,” Mr. Schumer said. Democrats needed to provide added pandemic relief and attack deep-seated problems like racial injustice and climate change while restoring public faith in elections and government. Events later on Jan. 6 would add to the burden.

Despite the crush, Mr. Schumer pushed through the stimulus law, confirmed the president’s cabinet with only one candidate withdrawn and oversaw an impeachment trial that drew Republican support for conviction of Donald J. Trump. The infrastructure plan is likely to be a similarly heavy lift, requiring a complicated round of wheeling and dealing to keep Democrats united and possibly even attract some Republicans.

As he faces Republican criticism in Washington, Mr. Schumer’s calculation is that there is a disconnect between Republicans typified by Mr. McConnell and Americans — even those who vote with the G.O.P. — who have seen the benefits of the Democratic agenda, like multiple stimulus checks during the pandemic, and would welcome more.

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“Our Democratic friends have become addicted to divide-and-conquer,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

“One of the things we have learned is that deliverables really matter,” said Mr. Schumer, who noted that polls showed that 60 percent of Republicans backed the Biden administration’s pandemic relief legislation enacted in March. “Maybe people are beginning to feel, if you look at the numbers, that America’s future is better again.”

Mr. Schumer has a theory for what he calls the “dichotomy” between Republican voters and their representatives in Washington.

“Two words: Donald Trump,” said Mr. Schumer, who unloaded on the former president as a “horrible human being” and called him “nasty, a liar, bigoted, divisive.”

Republican lawmakers, Mr. Schumer said, “are in the thrall of Donald Trump, who wants to get nothing done.”

Known mainly as a political operator and a creator of the Democratic Party message for much of his career, Mr. Schumer has had to delve more deeply into legislative tactics as the majority leader. He says he is relishing “the hardest job I’ve ever had” as he plays the procedural chess required to maneuver bills along the torturous path through the evenly divided chamber.

That requires seeking and enforcing unity in Democratic ranks, where Mr. Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are among those who have expressed skepticism about ramming through central planks of Mr. Biden’s program, like a $15 minimum wage, and yet another broad economic aid measure, this one financed by tax increases.

Mr. Manchin offered qualified praise for the president’s speech on Thursday. “Now we’ve just got to see how we can make parts of it — or all of it — work,” he told reporters, citing concerns about how to pay for the package.

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Senator Joe Manchin III, left, Democrat of West Virginia, has expressed skepticism about some of President Biden’s spending programs, threatening the slim majority Democrats have in the Senate.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Progressives are also agitating for an even more ambitious plan, including a Medicare expansion favored by Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and the chairman of the Budget Committee.

Though he and Mr. Biden did not share a deep personal relationship when they served together in the Senate, Mr. Schumer said he and the president were entirely “simpatico” when it came to what needs to be done legislatively.

“We can almost finish each other’s sentences,” Mr. Schumer said. “We both came from, you know, working-class backgrounds.”

In anticipation that Democrats will have to go it alone on Mr. Biden’s plans, Mr. Schumer has sought and received a ruling from the Senate parliamentarian that Democrats could avail themselves multiple times this year of the special budget reconciliation process that dodges a filibuster and allows the majority to pass fiscal measures with a simple majority vote. He said the parameters of the finding, which have not been publicly released, are still being worked out, but Mr. Schumer is fully prepared to go the reconciliation route if bipartisan talks stall.

“We will explore everything,” he said. “No decisions have been made, but reconciliation is clearly on the table.”

If Democrats pursue that strategy, they will need to stand together against a withering onslaught of Republican criticism and risk a backlash if voters conclude they have overreached. Mr. Schumer concedes it will be difficult, but points to the unity Democrats have already demonstrated.

“So far we have stayed in the fight,” he said. “Is it easy? No. Are there often bumps in the road and detours? Yes. But we have gotten it done — and we will get big, bold action.”

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