Chuck Schumer, Legislator

Once it became clear that health care was Mr. Obama’s priority, however, Mr. Schumer inserted himself aggressively into the debate, staking out what he discerned to be the likely median point of opinion in the Senate: creating a health care provider, initially funded with public capital, that would compete in the marketplace like a private company—a concept Mr. Schumer calls the “level playing field.” To win moderate support, he later incorporated an escape hatch: States would be able to opt out of the public plan if they chose. Despite the compromise, Mr. Schumer’s plan was voted down in the Senate Finance Committee, leading most commentators to declare the public option dead.

But he stubbornly refused to drop the issue, saying that out on the Senate floor, his plan had a good shot at winning a filibuster-proof 60 votes. When Reid sounded less certain, Mr. Schumer went on MSNBC to say that he was urging the majority leader to put the public option into the Democratic bill. Last week, Mr. Reid announced he would do just that.

Though they seem to have worked, Mr. Schumer’s pressure tactics reportedly rankled both the majority leader and the White House. According to Politico, Mr. Reid questioned his subordinate’s taking to the airwaves. Mr. Schumer played down any divide, saying that he was genuinely close to both Mr. Reid—confidantes of both men say that’s true—and Mr. Emanuel, a hard-driving personality with whom he shares some notable similarities. He said that rapid-fire, process-driven press coverage has made it more difficult to move substantive legislation. “It’s not just that it’s a battlefield, who’s winning and who’s losing,” Mr. Schumer said. “It’s a dynamic, unfolding process.”

An illustration: Senator Joe Lieberman announced last week that he’d prefer no bill to a bill that included Mr. Schumer’s proposal, and plans to round up the necessary votes once again were clouded.

“The House can much more script where it’s going because they have a Rules Committee that says this amendment is allowed and this amendment is not allowed,” Mr. Schumer said.

The Senate is different. “You can’t really … I mean, I’ve had some people in the White House saying”—his voice went up an octave and increased slightly in nasality—“‘So what’s the exact game plan for when we go to the floor?’ You can’t have one, because anyone can introduce any amendment at any time, and the members react to it.”

 

MR. SCHUMER SAID said he was hopeful that the debate will move to a relatively quick resolution, because, in his view, the relentless focus on health care has crowded out priorities he’d hoped to address this year. He’s moving a far-reaching immigration bill, cosponsored with Lindsey Graham, through the Judiciary Committee, and he hopes to get to the pressing issue of financial regulation before the midterms. “The key is the systemic risk regulator,” he said, adding that he’s not sure if that responsibility will be taken over by the Federal Reserve, as some advocate, or an entirely new agency.

Handicapping the Senate’s internal politics is notoriously difficult. Most observers say that the most logical rival to Mr. Schumer, if the majority leader’s post were to open up, would be Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, who ranks second in the party hierarchy. Mr. Schumer might expect to have the votes of many of 14 senators he elected as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, while Mr. Durbin would be able to count on the support—explicit or implicit—of Mr. Obama, a close ally back when they served together. But Mr. Durbin and Mr. Schumer are close friends—in fact, they share a famously dingy apartment when they stay in Washington—so the personal dimension of the competition, if there is one, would be extremely thorny. (Mr. Durbin’s spokesman did not return phone calls.)

There are, of course, ways to leave a profound Senate legacy without holding the office of majority leader. Mr. Schumer’s model Jacob Javits never did; neither did Ted Kennedy. Yet no one who knows him doubts that the hypothetical has crossed his mind. If there’s one thing Chuck Schumer appreciates, it’s the value of a good plan.

 

Chuck Schumer, Legislator