Chuck Schumer and the Art of the Deal

Once a partisan brawler, the New York Democrat is becoming a bipartisan force in the Senate.

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Andrew Cutraro for TIME

Senator Charles Schumer in his Washington DC office.

(TIME Magazine subscribers can read the full story, “The Deal Maker,” here)

Chuck Schumer has a unified theory about how to do a big deal in a divided capital. “You have to walk in the other guy’s moccasins,” he says. “You have to think what they think. If you want to bring somebody onto your side, you have to figure out what motivates them. What do they need?”

The strategy is working. Once respected, reviled and feared all at once for his sharp-elbowed style, Schumer is emerging as one of Washington’s top dealmakers. As I write in the new issue of TIME, he was a key player in both the background-check deal that sputtered in the Senate last spring and, more significantly, the lead Democratic negotiator in the immigration reform bill that has a good shot of passing the Senate this summer.

“There are too many who say, here’s compromise: here’s what I want, and I’ll only take three-quarters of it,” Schumer explained in an interview in his Senate office last week. The secret to the early success of the immigration bill, which was formally taken up in an overwhelming vote by the Senate on Tuesday, has been simple: “respect for [all] points of view.”

That doesn’t always sit well with his allies, some of whom think Schumer has been too accommodating of Senate Republicans in his quest to win broad support for the bill. In Schumer’s view, winning 70 votes in the Senate will ratchet up the pressure on House Republicans. Speaker John Boehner has said the House would take up parallel legislation rather than simply accept the Senate measure. “That’s what he says,” Schumer argues. “If we get 70 votes, and all the John Boehners of the Senate are voting for the bill? He’ll change.”

Schumer’s dealmaking ethos has also sometimes put him at odds with formidable players in the gun debate. After four Democrats joined Republicans last spring to defeat a push to expand background checks, billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured vast sums into an ad campaign targeting moderates who opposed the deal. Without red-state Democrats, the party could relinquish control of the Senate.

“I am trying to persuade–in whatever way I’m allowed to–the gun groups to put out different ads. Frankly, I don’t think Bloomberg’s ads are effective,” Schumer told TIME. “The mayor of New York City putting ads against people in red states is not going to be effective.” Schumer said he’s glad the mayor is running the campaign and emerging as a counterweight to the NRA. But he would do the ads a little differently. One senator, he says, privately confided that constituents shrugged off the spot because an accent revealed the speaker to be an actor.

“I’ve been trying to figure out the power of the NRA,” Schumer says. “It’s not the money they give out: they give out $3 million, $4 million a year. There are many groups that give much more. It’s not even their membership. They say 5 million; let’s say it is. There are tons of groups with more than 5 million members. It’s that they have a core group of active members who translate what’s going on to the average person — who are sympathetic to them because they’re part of their milieu.”

He previewed for TIME a sample script for what he believes to be a more persuasive background-check ad, narrated by a fictional gun-shop owner in Winnemucca, Nevada. “Now I’m an NRA member. I’m proud of that,” Schumer narrates, swapping his Brooklyn accent for a country twang. “My daddy was, his daddy before him, and my kids are going to be NRA members. But on this one? Background checks? They’re wrong. That background check ain’t gonna affect me. I’m a law-abiding citizen. It’ll just affect felons, spousal abusers, people [who are] mentally ill. So on this one, I don’t agree with the NRA.”

Schumer’s willingness to put himself inside the minds of others extends past guns and immigration and to thorny problems on the other side of the globe. During our interview, Secretary of State John Kerry’s number popped up on his flip-phone. (“I memorize phone numbers,” he says.) The two men recently sat down to discuss the Middle East, according to Schumer. The Senator thought his approach might work there too. “Here’s how the Palestinians feel, and if I were a Palestinian I might feel this way,” Schumer says. “The West treated the Jews very badly, culminating in the Holocaust. And what do they do to compensate? They give them our land!” He adds: “We Jewish people think that Israel is our land, but they don’t believe in the Torah.”

More than other Democratic negotiators, Schumer has suggested he is open to changes to the immigration bill that could broaden Republican support, so long as they don’t undermine the core of the bill. “We want to pass this bill with the amount of support it deserves,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio told reporters Tuesday. “What it will take to get that kind of support is not unreasonable.” Schumer, like other Democrats, has balked at the border-security amendment offered by Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, which would undermine the so-called “trigger” that allows the path to citizenship to kick in. But his openness to compromise has won him plaudits from Republicans and immigration supporters alike.

He’s been “pivotal,” says Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a GOP member of the Gang of Eight.

“Schumer has figured out whether the sweet spot is of good policy and good constituency politics,” says Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which lobbies for immigration reform. “He’s the guy who has brought us to the Promised Land.” To the cusp of it, anyway. It remains an open question whether the immigration bill will make it there.