Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer were supposed to bring a new, more productive relationship to the Senate after years of bitterness and dysfunction at the helm of the chamber.
Instead, it’s been a year of slights and one-upmanship between the two men. While there may not be the level of vitriol that marked McConnell’s dealings with former Democratic leader Harry Reid, a new era of bipartisan comity this is not.
“The relationship is not helpful. We were all hopeful that changing the dynamic there would have somebody more interested in solving the problem than Sen. Reid generally appeared to be. And if anything, at this moment, it appears worse, not better,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
Pushed by an inexperienced, volatile president on one side, and a Democratic base that loathes that president on the other, the two Senate leaders have become the flashpoint for the political breakdown that’s brought the country to the brink of a government shutdown, just one year into the Trump presidency. It’s the latest, most glaring evidence to dispel early predictions that Schumer’s ascension to Democratic leader would bring an end to the animosity that marked McConnell’s dealings with Reid.
With the federal government running out of money at midnight Friday, McConnell and Schumer have been locked in a stare-down, with the fate of 700,000 Dreamers, who risk potential deportation due to a policy change by President Donald Trump, riding on the outcome.
Yet they’ve continued to try to out-do each other, like two poker players who keep pushing more chips into the middle of the table, figuring one more bet will get the other to back down.
The relationship between the two — one an extroverted New York liberal, the other a reserved Kentucky Republican, both dealmakers at heart — has some history before they assumed their current posts.
Schumer was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2008 when the organization ran TV ads against McConnell claiming he caused an economic meltdown with lax regulations and then bailed out Wall Street. McConnell was angered by the move, and it took several years before he could discuss it with Schumer.
As Reid’s top lieutenant, Schumer was in charge of Democratic messaging, often lobbing shots at McConnell from the Senate floor. McConnell made sure to hit back.
Yet they both promised a new beginning when Schumer took over as Democratic leader in Jan. 2017.
It didn’t last long. The two got off to a rocky start when Schumer voted against McConnell’s wife for a Cabinet post, a move that stunned senators in both parties. McConnell then changed Senate rules to jam through a Supreme Court nominee, part of an unprecedented effort by the Kentucky Republican to control the makeup of the high court.
Schumer has slowed many of the nominations Trump has sent to the Senate and blocked his spending priorities, especially Trump’s much ballyhooed wall between the United States and Mexico. McConnell countered by employing every parliamentary rule he can to try to repeal Obamacare and push through a tax cut.
Schumer’s vote against Elaine Chao to head the Transportation Department is seen as a pivotal moment by some senators. As Schumer faced pressure from progressive activists to take a hard line against the Trump presidency and his nominees, including Chao.
“You don’t have any transportation projects up in New York?” McConnell told Schumer moments after the Democratic leader cast his vote. Republicans aides said the comment was more in jest than a threat.
McConnell and Schumer have been in more frequent contact than most senators and staffers know, including agreeing on procedural tactics before ripping into each other in theatrical fashion on the Senate floor. But allies of McConnell said Schumer’s vote against Chao didn’t augur well for their future relationship.
“That was totally uncalled for. I still don’t understand that one. I mean, I’ve heard him explain it to me, but I still don’t understand,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), who works out with Schumer regularly and is on McConnell’s leadership team.
Thune was among the Republicans hoping for a sea change after Reid retired and Schumer took over. But the No. 3 Senate Republican said that the Democratic Party’s turn left — at one point, activists showed up outside Schumer’s house and implored him to “resist or resign” — had made it impossible for the centrist-minded new Democratic leader to lead that way.
“Everybody sort of hoped that Chuck was going to be different than Reid was. But, again, I think what we’re finding out is he’s very much driven by the far left,” Thune said.
Durbin, a deputy to Reid and now Schumer, said those criticisms were off base. Asked whether things were as bad as between Reid and McConnell, Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) replied: “I wouldn’t go that far. I know Sen. Schumer is unhappy, as I am” about the chamber’s partisanship.
Other Schumer allies said McConnell, who often spoke of allowing more amendments and debate, has fallen far short of his promises. And that’s driven the Senate’s gridlock and lack of bipartisan agreement, simply because the chamber’s aisle-crossing muscles have atrophied.
“The Republicans have forgotten to get 60 votes,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii).
“All of Leader McConnell’s promises about regular order and every senator having a chance for amendments have been illusory,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “It certainly has been, I think, very difficult for Sen. Schumer in the face of a leader who doesn’t want the opposing party to have a single vote on a single amendment on a single legislative measure.”
Schumer clearly has a different style than Reid. He is taking pains to cater to members of his caucus facing disparate but difficult paths to reelection this November. While Republicans assert Schumer has moved left, he’s won plaudits from more moderate members like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) for paying attention to members across the Democratic spectrum.
In fact, the roots of this current impasse can be traced to McConnell and Schumer’s instincts to shield their caucus from political consequences. Both Schumer and McConnell are former party campaign chairmen, a far different bond than Reid and McConnell shared as former party whips and appropriators.
“They have a better relationship than Sen. Reid and Sen. McConnell had,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who often worked as a go-between with Schumer when Reid and McConnell’s negotiations broke down. “The more Sen. McConnell and Sen. Schumer talk, the better the Senate works. And I’d like to see them talk more.”
“Let me tell you —most of us get along just fine, including the Democratic leader and the majority leader,” added Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.). “We talk in the hallways, on the [Capitol subway], we know this [shutdown battle] is nonsense. And we know we shouldn’t be here. I don’t think the relationship is any more poisonous than in the past.”