(Bloomberg) Known to many as a partisan attack dog, Senate Democratic leader-in-waiting Chuck Schumer is plotting to reach across the aisle next year with a pragmatic agenda he insists can get through a bitterly divided Congress.
"We have a moral obligation, even beyond the economy and politics, to avoid gridlock and get the country to work again," the New York senator said in an interview last week. "We have to get things done."
It won’t be easy. If Democrats manage to win the Senate—which Schumer insists is still "more likely than not," despite narrowing polls over the past two weeks—the party likely will control the chamber by a very slim margin. The Senate could even end up split 50-50, with the vice president having to cast deciding votes. And Democrats are unlikely to hold the chamber beyond 2018, with that year’s Senate map stacked against them.
If Schumer’s former rival, Hillary Clinton, wins and he’s running the Senate, he said he’s optimistic several big issues could get done early on, including overhauls of international corporate taxes and immigration laws, criminal justice changes and more funding for scientific research.
That might sound like little more than wishful thinking coming from a man whose job for many years was to run a hard-charging Democratic Senate campaign arm that defeated many Republican candidates. Schumer has a New Yorker’s zest for sharp-elbowed politics that might make Senate Republicans wary of doing business with him, especially in today’s highly partisan atmosphere.
But Schumer is at heart a deal maker and a legislator. He worked with Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on immigration and Chinese currency manipulation. And Schumer said he and Paul Ryan had been negotiating a deal on overhauling corporate tax rates "at a pretty granular level" before the Wisconsin Republican got tapped last year to become speaker of the House.
"I hope and intend to resume those conversations," he said.
A deal could potentially result in the repatriation of trillions of dollars parked overseas by corporations like Apple Inc. to avoid the 35 percent corporate tax, while curbing incentives for future corporate inversions. If Schumer and Ryan want to cut a deal, so does one other person: Clinton.
While Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has resisted doing a piecemeal tax overhaul that helps corporations without lowering individual tax rates, Schumer said the more targeted deal can get done.
"You’ve got to do what’s possible," he said. "There is a possibility of compromise for international tax reform provided it’s attached to a broad, strong infrastructure bank."
He notes that many Democrats don’t like the idea of overhauling international taxes for corporations, but can support it if the windfall from the transition to a new system funds infrastructure and creates jobs.
‘Partisan and Effective’
Republicans like Lamar Alexander of Tennessee—with whom Schumer negotiated a deal in 2012 to facilitate some executive appointments and a separate agreement to streamline the rules—have already approached him in hopes of working in a bipartisan way.
"Both he and Mitch McConnell are smart, partisan and effective," Alexander said in an interview. "They both place a value on how unique the Senate is as an institution to get consensus on big issues at a time the country is hungry for consensus."
But any good feelings could dissipate quickly, particularly if there is an early battle over a Supreme Court nominee in which Republicans block a confirmation and Democrats change Senate rules to push through a Clinton pick.
Across the Aisle
As leader, Schumer would spend far more time negotiating with Republicans. He did so in the past when the Senate passed a bipartisan immigration bill in 2013—an issue Schumer hopes Republicans will want to revisit quickly if Donald Trump loses.
"I don’t just want to put things on the floor where they vote yes and we vote no, everyone points fingers and nothing gets done," he said. "There is a yearning among people in both parties to get things done."
Alexander said McConnell’s already opened up the Senate floor—far more amendments got votes this Congress than the last one under the leadership of Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada—and bipartisan bills like a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education measure and a long-term highway law were among the results.
"There’s always the potential for the Senate to run off the tracks, especially after a bitter presidential election like the one we’ve had," Alexander said. But, "when you add a new leader to the mix, there is the potential for us to work together and solve some big issues."
McConnell would have an incentive to make a Democratic Senate look dysfunctional, particularly with half of the Democrats up for re-election in 2018 versus just eight Republicans, but Alexander doesn’t see that as his objective.
"They’ve both been around long enough to know that this year’s winner is next year’s loser. What we need is a longer view," he said.
Schumer doesn’t think a straight blockade would work anyway.
"The party that’s seen as obstructionist is going to pay a price in 2018," he said.
Schumer and Clinton have come a long way from the rivalry between them when they first entered the Senate.
"Our first year, it took us a while to get to know each other," Schumer said, insisting they have long been friends.
"We talk two or three times a week," he said. And some of Schumer’s star former aides are on Clinton’s campaign, including spokesman Brian Fallon.
Even so, Schumer noted his independence from Clinton during his one televised debate with Republican opponent Wendy Long, saying he opposed the Iran deal—something that at one point had allies of President Barack Obama openly questioning whether he should become party leader.
Such talk never took off in the Senate, where Schumer has been seen as Reid’s de facto successor for years. Practically the entire caucus endorsed him within a day of Reid’s retirement announcement.
But he will have his hands full keeping Democrats united.
Already, liberals Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont have declared they plan to block Clinton’s nominees if they are too friendly to Wall Street—and Wall Street, of course, includes many of Schumer’s and Clinton’s most powerful constituents and patrons.
His pitch to the liberals: Stay united to get things done. And moderates have long trusted his political skills.
"If anyone is up for it, it’s Chuck Schumer," said Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who credits Schumer with both a passion for legislation and knowing what makes senators tick.
"He’s kind of like a Brooklyn LBJ," said Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. "He’s got immense capacity to bring people together and nobody’s ever outworked him."
Schumer’s biggest challenge may be simply confirming Clinton’s nominees, starting with the Supreme Court, assuming McConnell doesn’t relent on his threat to block Merrick Garland’s confirmation later this year.
One of Schumer’s first decisions will be whether to change Senate rules to prevent a minority from blocking Supreme Court picks after Republicans like John McCain of Arizona, Ted Cruz of Texas and Richard Burr of North Carolina each raised the possibility that they could indefinitely block any Clinton nominee.
Schumer wouldn’t say whether he’ll go there.
"In the heat of elections, people say a lot of things," he said. "I’m hopeful that after the election we’ll be able to work something out."
But Klobuchar and Whitehouse, both members of the Judiciary Committee, said Democrats wouldn’t allow a Republican blockade.
"We would have no choice and no hesitancy about using the same rules for Supreme Court nominees as we use for every other judge and executive branch nominee," Whitehouse said.
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