In the Health Care Fight, Schumer Acts Like a Majority Leader

When three of his fellow Democrats bailed on him on Tuesday and his public option amendment was defeated by the

When three of his fellow Democrats bailed on him on Tuesday and his public option amendment was defeated by the Senate Finance Committee, Chuck Schumer nonetheless expressed optimism that the Senate will ultimately pass a reform package that includes one.

If he’s right and it does, New York’s senior senator could emerge as the biggest political winner.

Schumer is now engaged in an unofficial, informal and (as far as we know) completely unspoken campaign that he and his competition will never acknowledge being engaged in—for the position of Senate majority leader, which will open up at the end of 2010 if Harry Reid loses his reelection bid in Nevada.

It isn’t impossible that Reid will survive, but the signs are ominous: He already trails his likely Republican opponent, Jerry Tarkanian son Danny Tarkanian, by a high single-digit or low double-digit margin. And Reid will be running uphill next fall: Nevada is a swing state to begin with, the Obama-spurred high turnout that favored Democrats in the state last fall won’t be a factor, the Bush bogeyman will be gone and if the economy is still reeling, voters will probably take it out on Democrats.

That puts Schumer and Illinois’ Dick Durbin, Reid’s two chief lieutenants, in an awkward spot: They would both like to succeed him if he loses, but they can’t make any overt moves until after next November’s election, when things will suddenly happen fast (if Reid does, in fact, go down).

The last time Senate Democrats were in this situation—back in 2004, when Majority Leader Tom Daschle faced a tough reelection campaign in South Dakota—Reid, who’d held the No. 2 leadership post for the six previous years, was well positioned to step right in. As soon as Daschle’s defeat became official, Reid picked up the phone and collected enough commitments to succeed him—cutting off Chris Dodd, who made a brief, late-starting, and half-hearted bid for the post.

But the dynamic is different now. Both Durbin and Schumer can make legitimate claims to the leadership mantle and both have sizable bases of support within the caucus. They are both formidable enough that, almost certainly, it would be a two-man race—one that, at least for now, has no apparent favorite.

Which is what makes Schumer’s aggressive and highly visible crusade for a public option so fascinating to watch.

On the one hand, he’s simply doing his job. To the Democratic base, ensuring that a public option is in any final health care bill is a bottom-line issue. Without it, any reform will be deemed too weak and too much of a giveaway to private insurers. And it’s within the Senate, with its super-majority requirements, that the public option is endangered—nowhere more so than on Schumer’s Finance Committee.

Viewed from this angle, Schumer is merely applying his legislative savvy to the most sensitive aspect of the biggest debate of the day. He’s taken the lead in trying to find the magic middle ground on which a filibuster-killing 60-vote supermajority can be assembled.

But it could also have a real impact on that officially nonexistent majority leader’s campaign that he’ll never admit he’s waging. Between the Senate’s three Democratic leaders, Schumer—by far—has been the most visible on the public option.

Reid can’t be too forceful: He’ll need to moderate what figures to be a hellish reconciliation process between the Finance Committee’s bill and the one passed by the more liberal Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Plus, he now has to be more mindful of how his actions play back home. 

Durbin has been far quieter. After seeming to waver over the summer, he’s reaffirmed his commitment to the public option, but he has hardly come across like the leader that Schumer has on the issue.

This has created an opening for Schumer to claim the public option battle as his own—offering his fellow Democrats a preview of how he’d mix idealism and pragmatism as their leader. He’s exploited the opening rather well.

Back in the spring, he sensed that too many conservative Senate Democrats would flinch at a public option that linked provider reimbursement rates to Medicare (a version House Democrats will likely embrace). So he crafted the “level playing field” public option, aimed at allaying fears that a government-run insurance program will have an unfair competitive advantage. More recently, as some key Democrats in the Senate (Durbin included) began abandoning the public option in any form, Schumer dug in, insisting that—in some form—it be retained.

His leading role on the issue was on vivid display on Tuesday, when he offered his “level playing field” amendment to the Finance Committee. As Republican Chuck Grassley dove into his (and every Republican’s) familiar talking points about the evils of government-run medical programs, Schumer interjected, wondering if Grassley was including Medicare and the VA health system in his denunciations. This did nothing to alter the outcome of the vote, but it made Schumer hero-for-the-day to the Democratic base.

If a public option ends up clearing the Senate (and that remains a big if), Schumer will be well positioned to accept much of the credit. And even if the public option that emerges is weak and watered down, simply passing one would still be a remarkable achievement—and would clear the way for Democrats to expand and strengthen it in future Congresses.

And who better to lead us in those future fights, Democrats might start saying to themselves, than the man who led us in the first one? In the Health Care Fight, Schumer Acts Like a Majority Leader