“He was not my friend. We never went golfing together, even had a meal together,” Schumer told POLITICO in an interview Friday, two days after he was elected Senate minority leader. “He’s called me, we’ve had civil conversations a couple of times. But I’ve got to see what he does.”
As Schumer cautiously takes the reins of a caucus that will be the lone check on Republican dominance, he’s looking to walk a fine line when it comes to Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. There’s none of the bombast leveled almost daily at Republicans by the man Schumer is replacing, retiring Sen. Harry Reid. Instead, the New York senator is vowing to work with Trump and congressional Republicans when he can – on things like infrastructure spending and trade – but fight them when he thinks they go too far.
The relationship between the two Empire State power-players will go a long way toward defining how official Washington will operate in 2017.
Schumer describes Trump, who has donated nearly than $9,000 to the lawmaker over the years, as a casual acquaintance, someone he ran into at political fundraisers and New York events.
But in January, Trump remembered things a little differently.
“Hey look, I think I’ll be able to get along well with Chuck Schumer. I was always very good with Schumer. I was close to Schumer in many ways,” Trump said then on "Morning Joe.’
Trump and Schumer are both confident in their deal-making abilities and their skill in getting their message across to their supporters. But compromise on major legislation won’t come easy, given their vastly different political imperatives.
Take Obamacare. McConnell is itching to repeal the health care law and Trump is talking about saving pieces that keep young adults insured and prohibit denial of coverage for pre-existing conditions. Republicans can repeal it but not replace it without Schumer's help, giving him and his party leverage. The new leader said Republicans have a “political nightmare” on their hands.
“They’re stuck. The only way to keep the good things is to keep the bill,” Schumer said. “The reason they haven’t had an alternative is ’cause there isn’t an alternative if you want to keep all the things it does.”
Still, these are hardly the conditions Schumer envisioned as he takes the reins of his caucus. He had suggested publicly during the campaign that Hillary Clinton would be in the White House and he’d be majority leader. Instead, Schumer faces the burden of reinventing his traumatized party on the fly and protecting Barack Obama’s legacy, while selectively doing business with a Trump White House.
Schumer criticized Trump for his appointments of Steve Bannon and Gen. Mike Flynn to his inner circle. Schumer declined to say he'll vote against confirming his longtime colleague and occasional gym partner, conservative Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), for attorney general. But Schumer said he could if Sessions gives a "murky" answer on civil rights.
The New York Democrat also wouldn’t commit to working with Trump to scuttle Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which Schumer opposed. And Schumer provided only vague guidance on when or how often Democrats will use the Senate’s supermajority rules to deny McConnell the votes he needs to pass legislation.
“There’s a lot of troubling things coming down the pike,” he said. “We’ll have the votes to block any repeal of Dodd-Frank. How about ACA? We are totally against repeal."
“We won’t block legislation coming to the floor if they don’t curtail amendments. Now, that’s not going to be universally true but we’re going to try to do that more,” Schumer said of working with McConnell, with whom he’s met since the election.
Schumer insists his party is more unified than Republicans following Trump's win, especially on economic issues.
Yet the minority leader also faces cross-currents within his own ranks. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a favorite of progressives, attacked Sessions on Friday, saying there should be "no compromise with racism." But Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat up for reelection in 2018 in West Virginia, has already said he'll back the Alabama senator.
It's a perfect example of the fault lines Schumer must navigate as leader. The party’s increasingly liberal base will expect him to confront Trump and McConnell aggressively and without exception. But Schumer also has to look out for vulnerable Democrats from red-leaning states, who represent Democrats’ only hopes of eventually getting back to the majority.
Schumer has been busy building his own cabinet of advisers. He appointed Manchin and liberal firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to his leadership team this week, pursuing a collaborative approach in which he’ll listen to nine voices from across the Democratic spectrum, then make up his mind.
“It’s a very healthy process. Sen. Schumer wants to have a very open dialogue among the caucus,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.).
Schumer is clearly trying to revamp Senate Democrats’ approach and put his own stamp on the caucus with Reid’s departure. A better relationship with McConnell is a starting point: The two men see potential for more cooperation than has existed. That, said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart, “would be a nice change from the last two years under different leadership.”
In the interview, Schumer notably distanced himself from Reid’s decision in 2013 to kill the filibuster for all nominees except to the Supreme Court. That seismic change now all-but-guarantees that Democrats will have to swallow Sessions and a host of other Trump cabinet appointees they would otherwise have had leverage to derail.
“When Harry proposed the changing of the rules, I didn’t want cabinet” appointments included, Schumer said. “It’s such a high, important position there ought to be an attempt at bipartisanship, not to put someone on either extreme.”
Asked about the decision, Reid said: “We took the position that the caucus wanted us to take and I prefer to keep all private discussions between members private.”
Author: BURGESS EVERETT, JOHN BRESNAHAN and ELANA SCHOR