Chuck Schumer: The Legislative Hurricane

Stumping for Hurricane Sandy relief, the New York Senator shows why he’s become a force in Washington

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Jason Reed / Reuters

U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer speaks during a news briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 18, 2013

When Hurricane Sandy socked New York City, there was no more dangerous place to be than in Ocean Breeze, a low-lying neighborhood of modest homes nestled near Staten Island’s eastern shore. Water sloshed through the streets, 10 feet high in places, cresting the tops of houses and sending residents scurrying for higher ground. It was the start of a slow-moving nightmare. Six months later, 75% of houses near the intersection of Oceanside and Liberty Avenues remain uninhabited, and the patient community has grown fed up with the federal response. FEMA relief has slowed to a crawl. Insurers are remorseless. The residents, some still living in their cars, feel abandoned by the people in power. Most of them, anyway.

One of the few fixtures in the months since Sandy, locals say, has been Chuck Schumer. Within hours of the storm, New York’s senior senator was in the neighborhood, a platoon of press in tow, drawing attention to the community’s plight. He’s been back enough since to have a favorite sandwich at the local Italian joint down the street. “The Schumer,” he calls it, rattling off the ingredients from behind a makeshift podium erected for a press conference in the middle of the scarred street.

“He’s been fantastic,” says Frank Moszczynski, the chairman of the board of the local civic association. “He’s fighting all the time for us.”

These days Schumer seems to be fighting, in big ways and small, for too many causes to count. With the Senate in recess, he spent Wednesday crisscrossing the New York area to tout a variety of steps he has taken to pump money into communities still rebuilding from the storm. In the morning, he held a press conference in Manhattan to publicize a push to make the feds boost their share of the tab for Sandy repairs from 75% to 90%. An hour later, he was repeating his plan to unlock $900 million in government funds for another bank of cameras at the edge of a harbor in Freeport, on Long Island’s South Shore. The Staten Island stop in the afternoon was to flog a different Sandy-related effort, which would provide block grants to reimburse cash-strapped homeowners who plowed ahead with rebuilding themselves in the face of red tape.

Sandy relief may be a local issue, but Schumer has brought the same stamina and camera-friendly style to the biggest national battles in Washington. He helped craft the bipartisan background check deal that was beaten back on the floor of the Senate last month, and vows to take another run at passing it later this year. As a member of the so-called Gang of Eight, he is one of the key architects of the bipartisan immigration bill that offers the best chance for a comprehensive overhaul in a generation.

These key roles are a sign of Schumer’s transformation from one of the Senate’s most polarizing forces to one of its foremost dealmakers. In 2006 and 2008, the New York City native ran the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a perch from which he used his Wall Street ties, canny political instincts and knack for the dark arts of campaign savagery first to engineer a successful takeover of the upper chamber and then to pad the party’s margin. Those efforts won him both lingering enemies and grudging respect among his Republican colleagues — many of whom he’ll have to win over as he tries to move Obama’s agenda.

Schumer knew that a gun deal couldn’t be brokered without the help of colleagues who boasted sterling Second Amendment credentials. So he set out immediately to find a suitable partner. After weeks negotiating a background-check provision with Oklahoma Republican Tom Coburn (one he now says he’d be open to revisiting), he decided to throw his support behind a compromise brokered by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey. The deal fell five votes short.

But Schumer, speaking to reporters in Manhattan on Wednesday, insisted the issue wasn’t dead yet. “I think we’re on the verge of passing a major background checks law. And I think it will pass this year,” he said. “We’re going to go back and work with our colleagues. We may have to make a tweak or two if they have certain concerns. But I think have reached a turning point, and I am not deterred by the loss we had a couple weeks ago.” He pointed to the blowback some Republican dissenters have received during this week’s recess. “That’s brand new,” he said. “That’s why I think we’re at a turning point on guns.”

Breathing life into a dormant gun deal is arguably easier than Schumer’s other high-wire act this spring. To pass a massive overhaul of U.S. immigration rules, Schumer must preserve the fragile compromise struck by the four Democrats and four Republican negotiators without making the other 52 senators feel silenced. At the same time, he and his allies will have to placate powerful outside stakeholders from across the political spectrum and defang efforts to kill the bill in the Republican-controlled House.

To say nothing of his colleagues on the left. Even before the bill heads toward a markup in the Judiciary Committee next week, potential pitfalls are cropping up on both left and right. Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont has plans to introduce an amendment that would allow gay Americans to sponsor their same-sex partners for green cards. The tweak could damage the bill’s prospects by alienating religious groups that have so far been supportive of an overhaul. Speaking to reporters in his Manhattan office, Schumer expressed support for the measure. “I believe in that amendment strongly and I’m committed to work as hard as I can to get it done,” he said. “There are people who feel strongly on the other side. We’ll see how that plays out.”

At the same time Florida Senator Marco Rubio sapped some of the bill’s momentum by telling a radio host this week that the bill “probably can’t pass the House.” Asked about Rubio’s remarks, Schumer grew animated. “We don’t expect the exact bill that we passed to meet the favor of everybody in the House,” he says. “If not, obviously we’ll see what changes they make. But there are certain bottom lines.” If the House strips a pathway to citizenship, that would be a deal-breaker, he said. So too is House conservatives’ preference to take up the measure in several pieces, rather than in one big bill. “Piecemeal is dead,” he says. “It never works, and it’s an excuse by people who want to say they’re doing something about immigration but really not doing it.”

Even with the heavy workload in Washington, Schumer’s efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy has won him plaudits from local officials at home. “He’s been our hero,” says Len Torres, a Long Beach city councilman. In the weeks ahead, Schumer has a chance to play the same role for supporters of immigration reform and gun control.

VIDEOChuck Schumer, House Analyst