January 30, 2023

WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Schumer gathered in his Capitol office Thursday night awaiting a climax with Kirsten Senema, a critical stance on his hard-negotiated agreement on climate change, taxes and health care, when a loud explosion and flashes of a powerful thunderstorm shook Washington. , prepare flashing lights.

Mr. Schumer and his lieutenants, so close to a landmark legislative achievement to top a surprising streak of victories, looked anxiously at each other and wondered if that was a bad omen. The Senate from 50 to 50, a pandemic that has kept Democrats constantly guessing who will be available to vote and the sheer difficulty of running the nearly unmanageable chamber has left them superstitious.

“I’ve been a worry my whole life, but I’ve been a happy worry,” said Mr. Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader.

He didn’t need to worry. After a half-hour meeting, Mr. Schumer shook hands with Ms. Senema, Democrat of Arizona, who agreed to lend her support for the legislation in exchange for some revisions and some drought relief in the home state. After a grueling overnight session, the Senate approved the sweeping measure on Sunday, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaker vote. The House of Representatives was expected to follow suit later this week.

It was a sudden change of fortune. Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Schumer and the Democratic agenda and the party’s chances of retaining a majority of the Senate appeared in a sorry state as recent negotiations over the broad legislation seemed to have collapsed forever under the weight of Senator Joe’s resistance. Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia.

Instead, the Democrats have not only capped their biggest prize — climate legislation and party-line taxes — but they also capped an extraordinarily fruitful trajectory for a Congress notorious for its paralysis. This included the passage of the first bipartisan gun safety legislation in a generation, a massive microchip production and scientific research bill to boost American competitiveness with China, and a health care provision for veterans.

The streak of successes was sweeter for Democrats because it came with the political benefit of making Republicans look bad by changing their stance and temporarily blocking the bill to help sick veterans, in what appeared to be a sudden apocalypse tantrum. of the climate deal.

“We’ve had an extraordinary six weeks,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview, describing climate, health and tax measures as “the most comprehensive legislation affecting the American people in decades.”

It was not certain that he would be able to achieve this result. Mr. Schumer, who unlike his predecessors is not known as a talented tactician or lawmaker, has struggled to produce for extended periods, needing every vote from an ideologically mixed Democratic membership. Even his allies questioned whether he was too motivated by a need for admiration or by personal political considerations in fending off a possible initial challenge from his left to be able to do the kind of ruthlessness that might be required.

Mr. Schumer said that stamina, not bare joints, was the main requirement.

“This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, with a 50-50 Senate, big agenda and stubborn Republicans,” said Mr. Schumer. He cited an insistence instilled in him by his father, who ran an extermination company and died last year, as a motivating factor. “Keep it up, keep it up. Look at all the pitfalls we’ve had to get this done.”

The swing on Capitol Hill was palpable as Democrats let themselves hope that their legislative victories, along with a national abortion battle they felt was shaking the political landscape in their favour, might keep them in control of the Senate. And for once, they thought they had outpaced Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and minority leader with a history of successfully confusing Democrats.

“The mood is very lively and expectant and really full of the progress we’ve made over the past weeks,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

Mr. Schumer made the gains without deep involvement from the White House. President Biden — who campaigned for the presidency citing his deep bipartisan dealmaking experience in the Senate — has ceded much of the responsibility to elaborate on the details. Final negotiations with Mr. Manchin continued one-on-one in the strictest secrecy.

Republicans licked their wounds as they watched Schumer’s Democrats push through legislation that the GOP was unable to stop under special budget rules. They weren’t sold on the idea that Democrats dug themselves into a political hole with a bill they called the Inflation Cuts Act, given that Mr. Biden’s popularity continues to decline and the cost of consumer goods is rising.

“Highest inflation in 40 years, 9.1 percent, families are hurting, they can’t afford a full tank of fuel,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. “The end of the month just came, and they ran out of money before they ran out.”

But Democrats have cited approval of Medicare’s long-awaited authority to negotiate lower drug prices as something that would appeal to voters, along with the general sense that Democrats are finally getting things done on Capitol Hill. They enjoyed the prospect of reminding voters that Republicans had voted against the drug pricing scale, and forcing Democrats to drop a proposal that would have set the monthly cost of insulin at $35 for private insurance companies.

They also referred to the climate change provisions as a huge leap forward, albeit not as broad as Democrats initially hoped to achieve before Manchin forced the party to scale back its targets.

Senator Edward J. Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat and leader on climate issues: “It’s a landmark climate bill, and it wasn’t on the scoreboard a month ago.” “Senator Schumer, working with Manchin, was able to pull off the key climate provisions we needed. It wasn’t all we wanted, but it was what we needed to start this effort to lead the rest of the world.”

Democrats also got some help from Republicans. Not only was the Veterans Bill critically wrong with their hands, Democrats said McConnell’s threat to block the microchip bill should bring Democrats with the partisan climate and tax legislation backfiring by incentivizing Mr. Manchin to pursue a compromise. .

“Anytime you threaten a bill that you support because you’re not working your way to something else, you’re in a bad position,” said Senator Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland. “It sounds bad. He was rudely political.”

While he was being attacked from the left, Mr. McConnell was also attacked from the right for being too accommodating of Democrats on bills like chip gauge and pistol. But Mr. McConnell has his eye on the midterms, too, knowing that Republicans need suburban voters who might break with a knee-jerk.

“Just because the government is so heavily divided doesn’t mean you don’t do anything,” McConnell told Fox News last week. “Just because there’s a Democrat in the White House, I don’t think it means Republicans shouldn’t be doing anything good for the country in the meantime.”

This approach bolstered Democrats at a crucial moment, entering the heart of campaign season.

“There is a clear change in momentum,” said Senator Gary Peters, the Michigan Democrat and chair of the Senate’s campaign arm. “I feel like we’re in a really good place. Here we go next August on Labor Day, and you look at where the numbers are, and all of our candidates are doing really well in a tough environment.”

After the recess, Mr. Schumer and his fellow Democrats plan to try to press their success, tabulating politically charged votes on gay marriage, oil pricing, and other issues they believe can show their power and put Republicans on the spot.

But even when he was about to score a major breakthrough, Mr. Schumer risked no chance. When the leader of an environmental advocacy group heralded him as a hero after an event outside the Capitol on Thursday, Mr. Schumer warned him, “Not yet, not yet.”

Mr. Schumer said the result highlighted a key difference between him and Mr. McConnell, who is better known for enacting siege and murder than for passing bills.

“He’s bragging about the cemetery,” said Mr. Schumer. “I like to be proud of the accomplishments, of getting things done — not of not getting things done.”

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