The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schumer’s to-do list: Fix DACA, win the Senate, manage Trump

At the end of a tumultuous week, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) works in his office on Capitol Hill on Thursday. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

Until the government shutdown last week, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer believed cutting a deal with President Trump was his best chance to protect "dreamers," the more than 1 million undocumented immigrants who had arrived in this country as children.

Now the faith has been broken, and the Democratic leader says he is charting a new path.

"Unless Donald Trump realizes that the kind of deal I offered is good for him, it's better that he stays away," Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in an interview last week, sipping seltzer by a crackling fire in his Capitol office off the Senate floor. "If he disappears, we still, I think, have a very good chance to pass things, as long as he doesn't mess it all up, which could very well happen."

Schumer blames the impasse over immigration and the subsequent shutdown on Trump's inability to strike a consistent position in private and public statements, fraying his trust in the president's usefulness as a negotiating partner.

But the episode also exposed a divide among Senate Democrats and created the greatest challenge of Schumer's one-year tenure as minority leader. His most vulnerable members, facing difficult reelection bids this year in conservative states, were unwilling to keep the government closed over immigration. Activists, meanwhile, were enraged, and some of them convened in protest outside Schumer's Brooklyn home.

That divide is likely to complicate Schumer's role in this year's midterm elections, in which Democrats hope to pick up two seats to take control of the Senate — but in which they are also defending 10 vulnerable incumbents in states that Trump won in 2016.

Schumer's gamble, at the moment, is that failure to secure protections for dreamers will fall on Republicans — and that Trump-state Democrats will be able to survive by tacking away from the more liberal wing of the party on immigration and other issues.

At the center of Schumer's challenges is his relationship with Trump, perhaps the most intriguing cross-party bond in Washington. While Schumer blames Trump for the impasse — and some polls agree — others squarely blame Democrats for the shutdown. For some, the burden is on Schumer to find a way forward.

The two men, who trace their roots to the outer boroughs of New York City, have quietly built a rapport over the past year, even as they clashed in public over the major policy fights. "I like him!" Trump exclaimed, in an impromptu gaggle with reporters after the shutdown. "I like Schumer!"

The immigration fight has deepened a divide between the two men. While flying back from Switzerland on Friday, Trump returned to name-calling, blaming Schumer for the dwindling chances of replacing the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which Trump ended last year.

"DACA has been made increasingly difficult by the fact that Cryin' Chuck Schumer took such a beating over the shutdown that he is unable to act on immigration!" Trump tweeted.

It's true that Democrats' short-lived resolve over the shutdown undermined a key point of leverage they had promised to use for months: to reject any agreement on a budget with Republicans unless protections were included for the roughly 1.8 million dreamers brought to the country illegally by their parents.

After he agreed to reopen the government last week, Schumer admitted that any prolonged shutdown would probably work against Democratic interests, lowering the odds of it being used again. "You've got to be strategic, and if things went too long, yeah, people might have turned against the dreamers," Schumer said of the shutdown.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who, like Schumer, continues to link negotiations on the budget with a deal for dreamers, voted against reopening the government following the shutdown.

Brian Fallon, a former senior aide to Schumer, said the Senate minority leader was undermined by a moderate effort to end the shutdown quickly. "Schumer's play was to ensure as much unity as possible," Fallon said. "He voted for the proposal knowing how much heat he would take."

Amid the recriminations, Schumer still says Democrats have come out stronger because of the government shutdown. He said they were able to elevate the issue of protecting DACA recipients and obtain a commitment from Republicans for Senate floor votes on the issue in February.

"We have heightened awareness of the dreamers," Schumer said. "It is much harder for Republicans to back off. Or just sweep it under the rug, which they have been doing for a year."

But there is broad agreement that a bipartisan solution will be harder to achieve without Trump's direct involvement. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) had hoped for the cover of the president's support, which would help them bring along votes for a compromise, Schumer said. "That was the strategy."

In the wake of the collapse, several separate groups of lawmakers have been meeting to outline possible deals in the House and Senate. White House aides also have prepared their own plan, tying a path to citizenship for undocumented youths to billions of dollars in border-wall funding, increases in immigration enforcement and dramatic changes to the visa system for legal immigrants.

Democrats, including Schumer, have ruled out the proposal as unworkable. Conservative groups seeking to restrict immigration also reacted with outrage to the Trump proposal of a path to citizenship for more than 1 million undocumented immigrants.

Forget Senate negotiators. House conservatives could have the last word on immigration.

Some in the Senate have joined Schumer's call for Trump to keep his distance. "My preference would be for the Senate to proceed and legislate and try to come up with an agreement without a lot of input from the administration other than technical assistance," said Sen. Susan Collins (Maine), a key Republican broker of a bipartisan deal.

From their first discussions on the issue of people protected by DACA, Schumer felt he had reason for hope, though the signals were often contradictory. Last September, Trump backed away from what Schumer called an agreement at a private White House dinner with the president to handle the dreamer issue independently from a physical border wall.

Nearly three weeks ago, Trump said he would "take the heat" if Congress struck a bipartisan compromise that resolved the issue of dreamers and dealt with border security. But when a bipartisan group of senators brought him such a compromise on Jan. 11, he dismissed it out of hand, using vulgar language to describe some African nations and Haiti.

Then on Jan. 19, Schumer said Trump called him and proposed they cut a deal to prevent another budget extension without a DACA fix. At that meeting, the two discussed $25 billion in new spending for construction of a border wall.

The government shut down less than 12 hours later. Schumer later formally withdrew his $25 billion offer, a move that Republicans later said proved he isn't serious about reaching a deal.

Democrats concluded that it was better to sign on to a shutdown with Trump's erratic behavior in the headlines than to wait.

"If he were to call me again, I'd go in and talk to him again," Schumer said of Trump. But the Democrat said he also gave White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly a warning about allowing Trump to take advice from immigration restrictionists including White House adviser Stephen Miller and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.).

"You will never have a deal if Cotton and Miller have veto power," Schumer said he told Kelly.

If there is a silver lining for Schumer, it is that he believes the shutdown is unlikely to dent the high hopes Democrats have for the fall. If there is no resolution this spring and young people previously given status are deported in large numbers, the cost will fall harder on Republicans, he said.

"The specter of deportations is hanging there," he said. "That could be devastating to Paul Ryan's caucus and particularly the most vulnerable members."

At the same time, Schumer wants to keep Democrats focused on an economic populist message in the fall, in part for the sake of those 10 Democrats in Trump states. With only three realistic pickup opportunities, holding those seats is crucial.

In several of those vulnerable states, including Montana, Missouri and Indiana, the issue of immigration could hurt Democratic incumbents, most of whom maneuvered during the shutdown to avoid votes that could be seen as choosing immigration over military funding. "We believe strongly in the dreamers, but we can't just let that occupy the whole stage," Schumer said. "We have to fight for middle class."

He spends an enormous amount of energy making sure his five most vulnerable 2018 incumbents are protected to vote as they need. His direction to the caucus has been to focus 2018 messaging on retaking the economic populist message from Trump.

"He is helping the wealthy and corporations; we are fighting for the middle class," Schumer said. "That is the sentence."

The recent signs, he said, are good for Democrats. "Across the country, large numbers of voters, even those who support Donald Trump, would prefer a check on Donald Trump rather than someone who will just go along with Donald Trump," he said.

So far, Schumer has succeeded in keeping his caucus united behind his leadership. Even those who fiercely opposed reopening the government praised him after the ordeal. "I'm going to disagree on strategy at times, but I support my leader 100 percent," said Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a likely 2020 presidential candidate who voted against reopening the government.

In the months to come, those divisions may become more stark as the party divides itself over issues such as whether to seek the impeachment of Trump or support single-payer health care.

"There are a good number of base voters who may want him impeached, but they are going to vote in the election for a Democrat whether that person is for impeachment or not," he said.

In recent months, Schumer, 67, has traded his Diet Coke and dinnertime dessert habits for seltzer and cherry-flavored Luden's throat drops, which are similarly sweet but lack calories and aspartame, which he blamed for increasing his appetite. "You have 20 of them, it's only 80 calories," he said.

Asked about the immigration protesters who recently gathered outside his Brooklyn apartment building — "If Chuck won't let us dream, we won't let him sleep," they chanted — Schumer said he loved the energy, which reminded him of his start in politics as a Democratic organizer trying to defeat President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1968 New Hampshire primary.

"I think it's great for us. I don't mind the occasional brickbats," he said. "I'd much rather have it directed at me than some of the senators that are running."

He also benefited by not being in New York when the protesters tried to wake him up.

"I was here," he said.