WASHINGTON (TNS) — On Wednesday, locked in a secure, undisclosed location while protestors invaded the nation’s Capitol, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell congratulated Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer for the first time on becoming the chamber’s next majority leader, a source familiar with the conversation said.
Schumer, D-N.Y., learned he would become majority leader on arguably the darkest day the U.S. Capitol has seen. Now, many political hurdles lie ahead when the 70-year-old New York senator takes the helm of a 50-50 Senate.
Just hours before he was locked-down with McConnell, R-Ky., it became clear that two Democratic candidates in Georgia, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, would win their run-off elections. After President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are inaugurated on Jan. 20 — and Warnock and Ossoff are sworn in — Schumer will assume the title of majority leader. Democrats will then have 50 senators plus one tie-breaking vote from Harris.
With the title of majority leader, Schumer will shoulder the responsibility of ushering the Democratic agenda through the Senate, handicapped by the realities of working in the narrowest possible majority. Nevertheless, Schumer on Wednesday said he and his caucus are committed to finding the “best ways for big bold change.”
”Mitch and Chuck are going to need to work together but it’s going to be a challenge for them and for the Senate,” said former Sen. Trent Lott, R- Miss., who was majority leader during another rare 50-50 Senate for several months in 2001.
Democrats, jubilant to take a Senate majority for the first time in six years, will likely have high expectations when their party runs the Congress and White House, but under current rules, Schumer will require Republican votes for every bill he wants to pass. Schumer will be able to confirm Biden’s cabinet and judges with only Democratic votes.
As majority leader, Schumer will have two new powers: he’ll be able to decide what legislation comes to the floor; during Senate debates, he’ll have the right to make the first comments or motions, said Richard Arenberg, a professor at Brown University and former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. Arenberg has written two books about Senate rules.
”Although the majority leader is a very powerful position in the Senate, it is nothing like the speakership in the House,” Arenberg said. “The speaker as long as she can hold her Democratic caucus together really controls the House very strongly. ... The majority leader has to be thought of in a different way. The majority leader is very powerful as we’ve seen with McConnell, but you can think of the majority leader as the first among equals.”
Schumer’s first task as majority leader will be developing with McConnell what will be, in part, a power-sharing agreement with Republicans: a Senate organizing resolution that will lay out matters like committee membership, staff budgets, who gets which offices and other rules. The resolution needs 60 votes to pass, so Republicans are likely to negotiate more privileges than a usual minority would have.
”I look forward to sitting down with Leader McConnell,” Schumer said Wednesday, before chaos enveloped the Capitol. “Certainly, we’ll have to talk.”
Schumer and McConnell have a template they could follow: the organizing resolution from 2001. In that year, while the Supreme Court handled the disputed election between Republican George W. Bush and Al Gore, a 50-50 senate was sworn in that January. For the first 17 days of the new Congress, Democrats had a majority in the chamber based on the tie-breaking vote of Gore, who was the outgoing vice president. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., was majority leader then.
But when the presidential election was decided and Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were sworn in, Republicans took the majority and Lott lead the chamber. Then after several months, Sen. “Jumpin’ Jim Jeffords” of Vermont, as Lott described him, left the Republican party and joined the Democratic caucus, giving Democrats a 51-49 majority.
Lott and Daschle said it took them three weeks to develop an organizing resolution, the playbook for how the Senate would function when divided 50-50. Daschle said the document “drives virtually everything.”
Lott and Daschle decided to award the majority party committee chairmanships, but divide the committee membership equally between the two parties — forcing bipartisan compromise even at the committee level. Schumer and McConnell may do the same.
When the organizing resolution was done, close cooperation between Lott and Daschle was still needed. Lott described the red phone he had on his desk at the time, which was a direct line to Daschle, a phone only two of them ever used.
”Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell are going to have to talk,” Lott said.
Daschle described he and Lott as “close friends.” Meanwhile, McConnell and Schumer are cooperative but not very friendly, said James Wallner, a professor at American University and former executive director of the Senate Steering Committee.
”They’re kind of like oil and water, they don’t mix very well,” Lott said. “Chuck is a city guy and McConnell was born in Alabama and represents conservative Kentucky. Their styles are very different.”
The increasing polarization of politics have driven Schumer, McConnell and their parties apart since 2001, Daschle said.
”Things have changed dramatically in two decades: social media has been a big reason why,” Daschle said. “Ideological cable news has also been catalytic in changing the environment. The money chase is so much worse now than it’s ever been.”
Party control is now more important than ever, Wallner said.
”What’s really hard for Schumer and the challenge he’s going to have to confront is between 2000 and now the Senate has become more centralized, the majority party leader has become more important and the expectations as to what you do when you’re in the majority have grown,” Wallner said. “It’s harder to blame the minority when you’re the majority.”
If McConnell, whom Lott described as a “world champion blocker,” wants to throw up obstructions to Democrats, he’ll still be able to in some ways. And both McConnell and Schumer will — as they do now — have to deal with their own diverse and at times fractious caucuses, keeping progressives, moderates and conservatives united to get anything done. One ‘no’ vote from any Democratic senator could sink a bill, giving each one notable power.
But Daschle observed that Wednesday’s violence at the Capitol could help foster more bipartisan cooperation at least for a time, as has emerged in the wake of other national emergencies like the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
”I do think that events like 9/11 and what happened tragically at the Capitol this week can be transformational,” Daschle said. “I think you saw a little bit of that as a result of the desecration of the Capitol, several people on the Republican side changed their position on challenging the certification of the Electoral College. ... It certainly has had an effect. Whether it has a lasting effect is still to be determined.”
Then again, Democrats are now considering impeaching President Donald Trump over the Capitol siege, something unlikely to win broad Republican support, although a few have backed removing him.
”That’s the kind of thing Chuck Schumer needs to cool down the rhetoric,” Lott said. “That doesn’t help either.”
Some areas that are likely sources of bipartisan agreement are further COVID-19 relief, an infrastructure package and possibly some climate reforms, Arenberg said. Schumer said Wednesday one of his first priorities will be to send Americans $2000 stimulus checks, an idea that has some bipartisan support, including from Trump.