Chuck Schumer helps the Democrats get political

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 17, 2010

As the Senate on Wednesday holds its first legislative session since the election, Democrats have a chance to show what lessons they've learned.

Will they address the urgent need for job promotion? Work out agreement on extending the Bush tax cuts?

Actually, no. Instead, Senate Democrats are planning, as their first order of business, a debate on . . . food safety.

Now, don't misunderstand: Eggs are best served without salmonella, and the legislation deserves to become law. But it would be a novel interpretation of the election results to conclude that Americans' top priority at this pivotal moment is a reorganization of the Food and Drug Administration.

This type of tone-deaf, seemingly haphazard scheduling of votes - often driven less by strategy than by procedural rules and caprice - has been a trademark of the Senate over the past couple of years. This, however, is about to change.

Responding to junior Democratic members who complained about the lack of regard toward the political costs of when votes

were scheduled, Majority Leader Harry Reid - who survived an election scare himself - has given broad new authority over Senate Democrats' floor strategy to Chuck Schumer, with an eye toward making it a more politically savvy operation.

Schumer is a loud and brash New Yorker (noo-YAW-kuh, he would say) with electoral horse-sense and an affinity for the camera lens. His ascension is an indication that the Democrats are preparing for two years of hard-nosed politics.

Schumer has been put in charge of the Senate Democrats' "messaging" and will have more of a say in what comes to the floor for votes. Expect to see a Clintonian focus on popular (though not pathbreaking) middle-class issues and regular votes designed to split and embarrass Senate Republicans.

Schumer's rise should come as a warning to the White House, as well: With 23 of their seats on the ballot in 2012, Senate Democrats are going to start looking out for themselves rather than for the president. "The last year was finishing the job on all the things Obama wanted and the House passed," said a Democratic aide familiar with the new plan. "These next two years it's about keeping our Senate incumbents strong."

Though he hasn't yet taken over his new responsibilities, Schumer has already begun to signal a new direction. After Obama strategist David Axelrod suggested last week that the president would surrender to Republican demands for an extension of Bush tax cuts on incomes above $250,000, Schumer went on "Face the Nation" to float an alternative: Extend the tax cuts on all incomes up to $1 million.

"Once we do that, the public will be on our side and Republicans will come round," the ever-tactical Schumer said. "They don't want to go away saying they held up middle-class tax cuts to help, you know, the Warren Buffetts, the Bill Gateses, the Rex Tillersons."

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