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Chuck Schumer: New US Senate leader faces trial by fire

Michael Mathes
·4-min read

From the upcoming impeachment trial of Donald Trump to the massive coronavirus stimulus package, a power-sharing impasse and a brewing showdown over the filibuster, Chuck Schumer faces the challenge of his political career as US Senate majority leader.

The 70-year-old Democrat and Brooklyn son of an exterminator delivered his maiden speech in a powerful new role Wednesday, telling rival Republicans that he is willing to work with them "when and where we can," while also promising that the Democratic-led Senate "will be active, responsive, energetic and bold."

By Friday, two days after Trump fled Washington in disgrace, and with the Senate now comprised of 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker, the limits of that power were coming into focus.

While new President Joe Biden is desperate to get his cabinet in place and nudge a $1.9 trillion rescue plan through Congress, Senate action has slowed to a crawl as Schumer and his Republican opposite, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, haggle over adopting basic rules for the chamber.

Senate Republicans have thrown up early road blocks to some key Biden nominations, and they are exhibiting unease with massive spending soon after Congress passed a $900 billion package to bolster the shaky US economy.

And getting at least 17 Republicans to vote for conviction of Trump will be a heavy lift, even as Biden pleads for national unity.

While juggling it all, Schumer is tasked with keeping together a Democratic coalition which consists of leftwing Senator Bernie Sanders, centrist Senator Joe Manchin and everyone in between.

"I think it will be a challenging time," said Senator Susan Collins, a Republican moderate and one of several senators from both parties who told AFP on Friday that Schumer has a tough road ahead.

"With the Senate so evenly divided, the majority leader is going to have to make an effort to build bipartisan coalitions, something that he's not known for doing."

An early test was to come Monday, when the House transmits its article of impeachment to the Senate, triggering Trump's trial.

But with Biden stressing he wants the Senate to juggle the impeachment trial concurrently with business like cabinet confirmations, Schumer did manage to strike a deal with McConnell Friday on the format of the trial proceedings.

After the article of impeachment is read out to the Senate Monday, there will be a two-week interim to allow for cabinet confirmations.

"Healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability, and that is what this trial will provide," Schumer said on the floor.

- 'Limited running room' -

He and McConnell remain at odds, though, over the larger power-sharing agreement, which is needed in order to determine how nominations and legislation might advance through committees that are split 50-50.

McConnell is seeking to disarm the majority from the start, apparently refusing to agree to a pact until Schumer vows to preserve the filibuster, the Senate's de facto 60-vote requirement on major legislation.

Schumer would like to maintain that key source of leverage, though, as a way to bring about compromise by reluctant Republicans. But even some Democrats, Manchin in particular, oppose nuking the filibuster.

Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican who has been a loyal ally to Trump in Congress, does not envy Schumer's trial by fire.

"He has limited running room," Graham said.

Republicans are unlikely to buy into a massive stimulus, "but I think there is a package we can do," he added.

And while a large-scale immigration overhaul is out of the question for his party, Graham said, he envisions smaller-scale action on DACA, the policy that allows immigrants who arrived in the US as minors to legally stay.

He also pointed to 2022, when Democrats will have to defend their narrowest of majorities in the House and Senate.

Biden, Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will "have to convince the left to stand down on some of these things, and that's no easy task," Graham said.

As a chaotic and historic January -- the insurrection at the US Capitol by a pro-Trump mob, then impeachment, then inauguration -- runs its course, Schumer may be tempted to exact revenge on Republicans.

He could set his sights on McConnell, the brilliant tactician who blocked Barack Obama's final Supreme Court nominee, only to turn around and guide three of Trump's picks onto the high court, including one just weeks before the November election.

But veteran Senate Democrat Robert Menendez said Schumer was unlikely to seek payback.

"No no," Menendez insisted, "it's time to make hay."

mlm/jh