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Schumer regime promises a sharp break from Reid

It’s been hard to tell lately that Harry Reid and Joe Manchin even belong to the same party. When Reid attacked Donald Trump after the election, Manchin called his own party leader an “absolute embarrassment”; Reid fired back that Manchin was just “running for a Cabinet spot” in Trump’s White House.

Then there’s Chuck Schumer. He not only tapped Manchin to join his leadership team, but also backed the West Virginian’s gambit that threatened a government shutdown over coal miners’ benefits — a showdown that Reid declined to endorse in his final days as party leader.

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“We want to get these beautiful people their due,” Schumer said in his trademark Brooklyn accent as he stood beside retired miners outside the Capitol last month. “And we won’t stop till we do.”

The competing postures toward the most conservative member of their caucus speaks volumes about the leadership styles of the just-departed and rising Democratic Senate leaders. Schumer is predisposed to accommodate the various factions of the Democratic coalition: His actions in the coal miners row demonstrated how seriously he takes the mandate to help his party’s withering moderate wing. The approach will be nothing short of a sea change from Reid’s singular style of combative, shoot-from-the-hip politics.

The Democratic leadership transition, under way for more than a year and described by more than a dozen senators and top aides in interviews for this story, will consummate officially on Tuesday when the new Congress is sworn in.

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The most glaring display of the shift so far is the sprawling leadership team Schumer has appointed and promised to consult before making key decisions — in contrast to Reid’s smaller, close-knit group of lieutenants and knack for taking hard lines on his own.

“This is one of Chuck Schumer’s real strengths. He believes in a big-tent approach,” said Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the new fourth-ranking Senate Democrat. “He likes to brainstorm and hear from everyone so he feels he can make the best decision.”

No Democrat in Washington will face higher expectations or more scrutiny over the next two years than Schumer. Liberals are already demanding that he and his caucus use the Senate’s supermajority rules to block Trump’s agenda and tamp down his popularity. But Schumer, a seasoned D.C. dealmaker, has made clear he’s not interested in blanket obstruction and signaled he will play ball with Trump when it can help the working class.

Further complicating his plight are the 2018 midterm elections. Ten Democratic incumbents from states Trump won, in some cases resoundingly, will be on the ballot, and Schumer needs to look out for them while catering to an increasingly liberal base. His solution has been to expand his leadership far beyond the scope of Reid’s inner circle, installing a kitchen cabinet of senators that will bring nearly a quarter of his 48-member caucus into the room for leadership meetings.

The core group of 10 senators includes Manchin and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) at one end of the political spectrum, and Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) at the other, making the leadership table a potential hotbed of ideological tension. The 10 lawmakers will be involved in all crucial party meetings, senators said. Reid often limited such gatherings to his top four and occasionally would act unilaterally.

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The sprawling new team has yet to meet, but when it does, it will be the biggest Democratic leadership squad ever. In addition to meetings of the core 10, there will be a broader weekly leadership meeting every Tuesday that 13 of the caucus’ 48 members are expected to attend. That session will draw in Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chief deputy whip Jeff Merkley of Oregon and deputy whip Cory Booker of New Jersey.

The arrangement ensures that no perspective will be neglected, but it could become unwieldy given the sheer number of people involved.

“It’s going to be a slightly larger group, and it obviously spans the breadth of the caucus,” said Warner, who voted against Reid as leader in 2014. “But I think Chuck has shown a willingness to be inclusive and listen.”

Schumer configured a unique structure for his top deputy to head off a clash between Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who had refused to rule out challenging Durbin for the No. 2 post. The press-adept Durbin will count votes and serve as a rapid responder to Republicans on controversies of the day, while Murray will be more of a backroom operator and party strategist, paying special attention to Democrats up for reelection after shepherding them into office as DSCC chairman in 2012.

Murray could also help prod senators to get with the program once a decision from leadership is made. With a pair of enforcers — Reid and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) — retiring, “someone has to say: ‘Cut it,'” said one Democratic senator.

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“My caucus knows that I bring reality to the table, what is achievable and what is not, and yet at the same time pushing for what we care for and what we need,” Murray said.

Rounding out Schumer’s top four is Stabenow, a close Schumer ally who will formally take over the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, the caucus’ messaging and policy arm. Stabenow will now shoulder key tasks that Schumer had handled, such as planning retreats and leading Thursday strategy luncheons.

“Contrary to 2016, when the major focus was on the presidential race … 2018 is really the opportunity for Senate Democrats to really be the loudest voice in terms of who we fight for every day,” said Stabenow, who’ll be up for reelection herself in a state that Trump won.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow will formally take over the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, the caucus’ messaging and policy arm.

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow will formally take over the Democratic Policy and Communications Center, the caucus’ messaging and policy arm. | AP Photo

Warner and Warren will be the caucus vice chairs, representing opposite ends of the party. Warner said it is “simplistic” to say his job is to relate the viewpoints of moderates to Schumer, though he enjoys deep relationships with some Republicans and abhors partisan theatrics. Warren, whom Reid tapped as “strategic policy adviser” to the DPCC after Senate Democrats’ thumping in the 2014 midterm election, will continue weighing in on key caucus decisions in her new role, an aide said.

She will be joined by Sanders, the caucus’ new “chairman of outreach.” The 2016 presidential candidate argued in an interview that Democrats have “not been anywhere near as aggressive as they should be” in connecting with the grass roots.

“Obviously, what happens inside the Beltway is enormously important, and we have got to fight for progressive legislation here,” Sanders said. “But we are not gonna be successful unless we rally millions of people to demand that Congress start representing all Americans and not just the 1 percent.”

Democrats also promoted Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) to leadership. As conference secretary, she says she intends “to bring the voice of the industrial heartland to our leadership conversations.”

Baldwin is also one of five women in Schumer’s leadership circle; half of the top four slots will be filled by women. The Senate GOP leadership is considerably smaller but has no woman in its top ranks, though two female senators serve as Mitch McConnell’s “counsels” to leadership.

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Then, of course, there’s Manchin, a headline-grabbing presence since the election who, at least on paper, will be one of the most endangered Democrats on the ballot in two years. He met with Trump about a Cabinet appointment that never materialized, then staged a high-profile protest on behalf of miners. He views his new leadership role as a bridge to not only the Trump administration, but also to congressional Republican leaders, an aide said.

Manchin’s partnership with Schumer on the miners issue offered some early clues about how the new Democratic leader will balance the needs of his conference.

Democrats thought Manchin’s stand was good politics for the caucus, particularly coal-state Democrats up for reelection. But he lacked an exit strategy, and Democrats were struggling to answer questions about a potential shutdown. Before he joined Manchin in front of the cameras, Schumer had privately decided to take the conflict to the brink but not to close the government over it, aides said, choosing to drop the fight just hours before the shutdown deadline.

“We believe deeply in preserving these benefits. And we also believe in not hurting other people to preserve these benefits,” Schumer said as his party waved the white flag. “We’re going to provide the votes to ensure we don’t shut down.”

Schumer himself ended up opposing the funding bill. It cleared a filibuster with just a vote to spare.

Source: POLITICO – TOP Stories

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