“Do you mind if I put my feet up?” Senator Charles Schumer asked on Sunday afternoon, as he sprawled across two chairs at the conference table in his midtown office. Despite the wave of Republican momentum that swept the House last year-helping Republicans extract $38 billion in budget cuts last month and setting up an apocalyptic summer debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling-the Democrats’ primary message man seemed relaxed.
“When the Republicans campaigned on cutting government, they didn’t say where, when or how, and now people are finding that out,” Mr. Schumer told The Observer. Mr. Schumer had already delivered a commencement speech in Rochester that morning, followed by one of his ritual Sunday press conferences, which called for increased rail security. Mr. Schumer made sure to highlight the fact that the recent budget compromise had cut $50 million in federal funds to protect railways.
“With the new knowledge we have that Amtrak and rail in general is a focus of Al Qaeda, we ought not be cutting back on those funds; we ought to be increasing them,” Mr. Schumer told the small throng of reporters. “And it’s ironic that there was a cutback of $50 million just made in the recent budget, a month ago.”
With House Democrats now relegated to the minority, and the White House still waiting to follow up its budget proposal with a forceful public push, Mr. Schumer-the anointed messaging guru for Senate Democrats-is, for now, chiefly in charge of helping the party recapture a narrative dominated by Republican talking points like spending cuts and deficit reduction.
And Mr. Schumer is spoiling for a fight-a few weeks of all-out debate over the role of government, the size of Medicare, whether to raise revenues and where to make spending cuts. “I think we’ll win that. We won’t win it if we just say, ‘Just raise revenues and don’t cut spending.’ But once the public is convinced we’re sincere about cutting spending-even if not to the extent of the Republicans-we can then win the arguments on revenues, and on increasing spending in certain areas,” he said. “I think if we do, our hand will be strengthened and the Republican hand will be weakened.”
There are at least a few reasons to feel emboldened. The budget proposal offered by Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan proposed a drastic overhaul to Medicare, which gave Democrats the chance to talk about one of their own signature issues, after months of playing defense. (The Medicare issue has helped turn a Republican rout into a real race in New York’s 26th Congressional District, which is being interpreted as something of a bellwether for next year’s race.)
And the White House seems willing to engage on this issue, after two years of mostly deferring to Congress on thorny pieces of legislation. “When I’ve talked to the president, he feels this passionately,” said Mr. Schumer. He said the president had “hit the sweet spot” on balancing the dual goals of addressing the nation’s deficit and trying to create jobs.
But, even with a concerted effort by the White House, the trench warfare of the Democrats’ media messaging is likely to be commanded by Mr. Schumer. In January, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid officially named him chairman of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, formalizing his role as the upper chamber’s message guru. “Some people think you can do message separate from policy and some think you can do policy without messaging,” Mr. Schumer said. “And my credo in politics for all the years I’ve been in, the two have to be joined. And I feel very satisfied that I’m part of the decision-making process here and I’m able to shape opinions.”
Mr. Schumer waved off a question about his working relationship with the more reticent Mr. Reid. “We’re like brothers in this,” Mr. Schumer said. “He’s the older brother because he’s the majority leader, but we’re like brothers.” And he rattled off a list of policies that he and Mr. Reid have championed, which have become accepted as part of the overall Democratic strategy: taking Social Security off the table; pushing revenue raisers; and advocating for the millionaire’s tax. “I talk to the White House almost every day,” he said. “Harry Reid and I talk about this issue three or four times a day. I mean, right now, it’s strategizing, and then it will be winning the message war.”
For the time being, a large part of Mr. Schumer’s job is to maintain pressure on House Speaker John Boehner, while keeping his fellow Democrats from giving away the store before the budget negotiations begin in earnest. On Monday, he convened a conference call with Roger Altman-a former Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration-imploring Mr. Boehner to reassure the credit markets that he wouldn’t allow the country to default, under any circumstances. (In a speech to the Economic Club of New York that evening, Mr. Boehner declined to heed Mr. Schumer’s call, and instead said it would take trillions of dollars in spending cuts to certify any increase in the debt ceiling.)
“I think we’re winning that fight,” Mr. Schumer said on Sunday, citing the general support of the business community. “Messaging has been pretty good on that.” But Mr. Schumer is hardly a singular voice in the conference, and there’s a chance he’ll have to contend with whatever long-term compromise emerges from the bipartisan Gang of Six, which has been trying desperately to hammer out its own deal. Mr. Schumer said he would prefer the spirited interparty debate. “I do think it would be a mistake for Democrats to start off with the Group of Six and their position,” Mr. Schumer said. “Then we’d sort of be negotiating among ourselves.”
Last week one of the Gang members-Kent Conrad, a Democratic senator from North Dakota and the Budget Committee chairman-announced plans to release his own budget proposal, which roughly followed the president’s blueprint, but also worried some Democrats, who said it hewed too closely to Republican demands and might stake out too conciliatory a starting point for negotiations.
For his part, Mr. Schumer sounded unconcerned. “I think you will see when Senator Conrad-I talked to him this weekend, as recently as yesterday-I think when you see Senator Conrad’s budget, it’s going to be much closer to the Democratic mainstream,” he said.
Mr. Schumer’s current job is complicated somewhat by his success in 2006, when he led the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to big victories in traditionally right-leaning states-victories that could be difficult to protect in 2012, with a more fiscally conservative climate. Last week, The Washington Post reported that four senators in swing states were parroting Republican calls for significant spending cuts to accompany any vote on raising the debt ceiling.
Mr. Schumer shrugged off any notion of a divided message. “Let’s wait and see how the votes come out, okay?” he said. “Look, we’re never going to have unanimity. But we’ve got almost unanimity.”
Among a famously fractured Democratic conference, Mr. Schumer hopes that might be enough.
“I think we’re on a pretty good road here. I’m very optimistic. I think this one’s going to come out very well for us. And for the country,” Mr. Schumer said. “So I’m feeling pretty good about both where we’re headed and the help I’ve been able to give to my party, and to my colleagues.”