WASHINGTON — The White House plan for peeling off Democrats to support President Donald Trump‘s demands for billions in border wall money ran into a particularly stubborn obstacle: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer‘s flip phone.
Schumer had already been talking with his colleagues for months, anticipating Trump’s fight. Soon after the midterm elections in early November, the New Yorker started doing what he does best, talking to his senators.
One by one, he dialed them on his vintage flip phone to gauge support for spending money on the wall with Mexico. He made a beeline for them across the Senate floor. He cornered them in the Senate gym. Most Democrats told him they were against it.
That unity buoyed Democrats during the just-concluded shutdown saga and is now girding them for the next tussle, with a second federal closure threatened by the White House.
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While Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., seized the starring role against Trump’s border wall, Schumer played no small part by helping shore up his side of the Capitol and bolstering Pelosi’s position.
It’s a strategy the Democrats will rely on as the next shutdown deadline, Feb. 15, nears, and as Senate Democrats use their minority status as leverage to align with Pelosi’s House majority on various fronts.
“If anything, our unity is stronger today than it was,” Schumer said Tuesday.
It was his most high profile role since taking on the leader’s position in 2017.
During Trump’s first two years, Senate Democrats held together to vote against the Republican tax plan, resulting in a partisan measure that has failed to gain widespread popular appeal. Democrats also denied Republicans the votes needed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, after dissent from the GOP ranks left Republicans without enough support.
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Schumer has been praised, but also criticized, for not forcing his senators to fall in line the way past leaders have done. Liberals railed against him for failing to stop Brett Kavanaugh from being confirmed to the Supreme Court, even though only one Democrat voted for Trump’s nominee.
Schumer is proving to be a different kind of leader, nudging his caucus to hold together on big fights, but also cutting senators loose to vote as they wish at other times.
Last year, Schumer looked the other way as several Democrats supported a Republican banking bill that reversed some Democratic changes put in place after the Great Recession. This month, as soon as the shutdown ended, Schumer lifted the blockade on a GOP foreign policy bill supporting Israel that divided Democrats; their votes allowed it to easily advance.
Schumer is showing the strength that Senate Democrats can assert in the chamber where 60 votes are usually needed to advance legislation to support or thwart Trump’s agenda.
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Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a member of the leadership team, said Schumer has “an uncanny way to be able to listen” to the various views and end up with a position that “eventually everybody can feel OK with.”
Days after the Nov. 6 election when Democrats suffered defeats in the Senate, Schumer started dialing up Democrats about the border wall. Four colleagues from states where Trump is popular lost their elections. But without much prodding, senators were lining up against giving Trump the money he wanted, according to a senior Democratic aide who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Senators had approved a border security package and saw no reason to spend more. Plus, Democrats had just won the House, strengthening their hand. By the time the White House thought about flipping Democrats, it was too late.
“It’s old the minds and hearts thing,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. Schumer, he said, “knows the minds and hearts of his colleagues.”
Even in Virginia, where Sen. Tim Kaine represents thousands of federal workers who would eventually go without pay during the record 35-day shutdown, Democrats held firm.
“The issue that the president chose to battle on, he just picked an issue where every Democrat is completely unified,” Kaine said. “Our caucus just welded together.”
In the end, just one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted for the wall money. The White House didn’t even bother trying to call another potential Democratic vote, Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama.
Emboldened by their newfound leverage, Democrats are now looking at areas where they can unite against some policies and perhaps win some GOP support on issues such as prescription drug prices, administration oversight or protecting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The night before a pivotal White House meeting in December, when the shutdown was a possibility but not yet reality. Schumer and Pelosi discussed strategy. They couldn’t have imagined what would come next.
With the television cameras rolling, Trump said in an exchange with Schumer that he would “take the mantle” and own the shutdown. Schumer can be seen trying to hold back a smile.
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A short while later Schumer arrived back at the Capitol for a private lunch with Democratic senators. They, too, were stunned.
The shutdown would drag for more than a month, but for Senate Democrats the new Congress was just beginning.
“It reinforced a lot of our steadfastness and resolve,” said Blumenthal, and “trust in our values and in the American people to see through Trump’s bullying and bluster.”