Sen. Chuck Schumer is positioned to be the Senate majority leader

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

On Mother's Day, Chuck Schumer delivered two commencement speeches upstate, flew back to Brooklyn to eat dinner with his wife, mother and daughters, and at 7:38 p.m. toted a briefcase into his midtown office for the political ritual known as the Sunday press conference. Picking his way through a line of television cameramen, he joked: "It's like football. No holes. Can't get through," then settled into his habitual spot between a lectern and a ratty blue curtain.

"The Times Square car bomb should be a wake-up call for the administration," Schumer said into a bouquet of microphones, demanding that President Obama increase New York's share of anti-terrorism funding. "I'm going to pursue that legislatively."

During his three-decade legislative career, Schumer, 59, has developed a reputation as a razor-elbowed, shamelessly self-serving, media-addicted political monster. He is also arguably the single most effective lawmaker of his generation.

Now, with confidant Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) hanging on to his seat by a thread, the Brooklynite is nearing the goal line of his long game. Succeeding Reid would make Schumer the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history and, more important for the uber-competitive politician, the first among peers. The senator has thrust himself into the center of issues including jobs, immigration and Supreme Court hearings, but as that momentum has carried him into a more intimate arena where popularity matters, the grating architect of the current Democratic majority has become noticeably more collegial. Perhaps not coincidentally, his colleagues see him as the front-runner to be their leader.

"It's very much within the realm of possibility," said Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who lost a race for minority leader to South Dakota's Tom Daschle by a vote in 1994. "He's always moving and always talking to people and he has a very good feel for what other people have to put up with. And that's a critical point of that job, understanding the environment your colleague has to operate in."

Schumer declined to be interviewed for this article and betrays an uncharacteristic loss for words whenever the term "majority leader" is uttered. Reid is, after all, still in control, and his closest competitor is Dick Durbin of Illinois, the liberal majority whip with whom Schumer has shared a Washington townhouse for years. Each can boast a strength: Durbin has the pleasant demeanor of a consensus-builder; Schumer is the die-hard fighter who has never lost an election. The prospect of a Chicago vs. New York majority leader race with echoes of Obama vs. Clinton is tantalizing, but also distracting.

Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said that the prospective race loomed over Schumer's and Durbin's floor chats with colleagues and that when Schumer recently approached him about working together on technology or travel legislation, he took the New Yorker's motives at face value. But he's not naive: "Now maybe he wants me onboard for other reasons."

The White House is trying to appear neutral, with mixed results.

"The president has a record of working well with both," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. "Obviously he has a longer, more personal relationship with Senator Durbin as a result of being home-state colleagues and for his help getting him elected in 2004 and 2008."

There is a sense within the White House that Durbin would be easier to work with, that Schumer would pose a problem on issues that could get him press back home, and that his Brooklyn bearing doesn't exactly play between the coasts. Still, one senior administration official offered a separate assessment that the members of the Senate would opt for the independence ensured by having Schumer at the helm.

"Chuck Schumer is the next majority leader," the senior administration official predicted. "He just works it."

Crossing the aisle

The passage of March's jobs bill revealed how Schumer operates. Reid, who was preoccupied with the health-care debate, delegated the jobs legislation to North Dakota's Byron Dorgan and Durbin. Durbin proposed his $80 billion package. A month later, after Scott Brown (R-Mass.) had replaced Ted Kennedy, Schumer persuaded Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) to sign on to a more modest measure.

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