Chuck Schumer’s first year as Senate majority leader is ending the same way it began: chaotically. The New York Democrat was huddled in an undisclosed location on Capitol Hill on the afternoon of January 6 when he learned that Jon Ossoff had defeated incumbent Republican senator David Perdue of Georgia. That victory gave Senate Democrats their 50th seat, Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote, and Schumer the office he’d wanted since he entered the Senate in 1999. But the atmosphere around him was not exactly celebratory. Mitch McConnell, Schumer’s GOP counterpart, offered tepid congratulations. A mob was ransacking the Senate chamber nearby.
Twelve months later, the Capitol is secure. But Schumer’s job isn’t any easier. He’s had to learn the ropes of the majority-leader position without the benefit of an actual majority. He’s had to please center-left Joe Manchin as well as so-far-left-he’s-upside-down Bernie Sanders. Schumer has had to figure out how his background in communications, candidate recruitment, and campaign strategy fits in an office whose most successful occupants have been affectless and publicity-averse tacticians (see: McConnell). He’s had to ward off a potential primary challenge from the neo-socialist left without alienating the suburban moderates who put Joe Biden in the White House. His record so far is mixed—at best. “He’s been good,” GOP senator Rick Scott told the New York Times earlier this year. “If you want to elect a Republican majority.”
The unusual political circumstances of 2021 have helped Schumer notch a few wins. The pandemic-related American Rescue Plan Act passed on a party-line vote, but three bills—the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, the United States Innovation and Competition Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—all went to the president’s desk with substantial Republican support. Schumer and Biden both say, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the electorate is crying out for Washington to do even more. Or, as Schumer put it during a floor statement in August: “Bold, transformative action—on traditional infrastructure, on helping families, middle-class families, cope, and on climate—will restore that bright, sunny optimism that has been part of this American psyche for centuries.”
Let’s not get carried away. As of this writing, the future of Biden’s $2 trillion Build Back Better plan remains uncertain. And it’s not as though the Senate is suddenly a wonderful place to work. Republicans, including GOP moderate Susan Collins of Maine, have a low opinion of Schumer. They see him as a ruthless but maladroit partisan who doesn’t understand the Senate calendar and who sets up votes without thinking through his endgame. Their negative attitude has made it easy for McConnell to rebuke Schumer’s demand that the GOP provide votes to lift the debt ceiling and rewrite election law.
Schumer’s real problem isn’t McConnell. It’s the clock. He doesn’t know how to tell time politically. Senate majority leaders these days are like NFL coaches in the fourth quarter of a playoff game. Everything comes down to time management. Because margins in the Senate are so narrow, and because majorities in Congress are so unstable, an effective leader can’t waste a single moment. He has to make sure he can accomplish all his goals before the session ends and campaign season begins. And he has to keep his coalition together while working with the House of Representatives.
Whatever talent Schumer may possess as a creator of sound bites does not extend to scheduling. He has let deadlines slide. He gives media stunts priority over legislation. Recently, I asked a GOP senator to name a piece of legislation that exemplified Schumer’s haphazard and self-defeating leadership style. “Every bill ever?” the senator replied.
Schumer devoted a week to the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act even though its passage was a foregone conclusion and only one senator voted against its final language. He spent three days in the spring on the Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act of 2021, which passed 89–2, only to fold that legislation into the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law months later, making the earlier vote superfluous. He has forced Republicans to block debate over the Democrats’ two election bills on four separate occasions despite knowing that the GOP isn’t about to budge. Schumer understands that West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has no interest in abandoning the filibuster and that he therefore would not have the 50th vote to achieve it. He is simply more interested in signaling to the left that he’s on their side—and that no Squad member with the initials AOC ought to challenge him in his own 2022 reelection bid in New York—than he is in using his time productively.
This year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is a case study in Schumer’s clumsiness. The NDAA authorizes the defense budget. Congress has passed it every year for six decades. It typically sails through. But not in 2021. The Senate Armed Services Committee passed the NDAA in July. The full House passed it in September. Whereupon Schumer did … nothing.
By early November, Democrat Adam Smith of Washington, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, had lost his patience. “I am very distressed,” he told Roll Call. “It’s all sitting there and for some reason Schumer has decided not to do it and there’s no reason for that.” Then Schumer announced that the NDAA would incorporate the United States Innovation and Competition Act that the House has stonewalled since the Senate passed it in the spring. Republicans balked, leaving Schumer to scramble, and further delaying the defense authorization.
Then Schumer cut a face-saving deal with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint a conference committee to look into the competition bill and drop it from the NDAA. Haggling over amendments to the NDAA—including a piece of left-wing virtue-signaling much-desired by Schumer that would repeal the Iraq war authorization from 2002—delayed its passage until after Thanksgiving. When the Senate returned from Turkey Day on November 29, Schumer assumed that finally he’d be able to bring debate on the NDAA to a close. But McConnell outfoxed him. Republicans forced additional debate on their desired amendments. The saga has continued into December. Schumer botched his plans for the rest of the year.
He has no one to blame but himself. The majority leader’s lack of interest in the subtleties of his own institution has led to a pileup of big-ticket items on the Senate floor. As of this writing, Schumer has to send the NDAA to President Biden, fund the government into the new year, raise the debt ceiling, and, he pledges, call the roll on the Build Back Better “social-policy bill.” There is every reason to think that Schumer will somehow muddle through his to-do list, though the fate of Build Back Better depends not on him but on Manchin, who doesn’t seem to be in a rush.
Robert Caro called Lyndon Baines Johnson a “master of the Senate.” Schumer is less a master than a disaster. His first year will end in delay, confusion, and unpopularity. Schumer likes to brag that he has memorized the telephone numbers of his 49-member caucus. He’s doing his best to guarantee that after the midterms he will have fewer digits to learn—and will have put himself out of a job.
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