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."

Schumer has often disagreed with Axelrod, siding with the pragmatic Rahm Emanuel over the past two years. He was privately skeptical about the merits of a major push for health-care reform, arguing that there would be little political benefit, because the average middle-class voter already had health care.

Instead, Schumer favored a Clintonian array of less ambitious proposals with popular appeal, ranging from immigration reform to a crackdown on Chinese currency manipulation, to a payroll tax holiday. He has an eye for bite-size issues that earn him favorable headlines, as he did in recent days by pushing for the FDA to ban caffeinated alcoholic drinks (the FDA did essentially this on Tuesday) and calling for an EPA study on lead in reusable shopping bags.

Junior Senate Democrats had been protesting since early last year the chaotic way in which bills were brought to the Senate floor. In a conference call for Democratic senators the day after the election, the junior members - particularly those up for reelection in 2012 - renewed their pleas for changes.

Reid responded by handing Schumer control of the sleepy Democratic Policy Committee and transferring to Schumer authority over the communications "war room." Though Schumer remains the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, the expanded portfolio, which Reid announced Monday, made Schumer Reid's heir apparent in the eyes of many Democrats.

That elevates Schumer above the titular No. 2 Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois. More important, it elevates Schumer's highly political style - and portends a rebirth of Clintonism in Congress.

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