Chuck Schumer is sounding a "last call" for bipartisanship and then is ready to go for broke
A conversation with the Senate majority leader on the next 1,361 days
In the project to rebuild America, if President Biden is the architect, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is the contractor.
As much as anyone in Washington, it is Schumer’s burden to translate the visions coming from the White House into legislation that can somehow make both Bernie Sanders and Joe Manchin, both Elizabeth Warren and Kyrsten Sinema, say “Aye.”
I talked to Schumer last November, right after the election, and he made a case for “big, bold” change — a degree of change that he readily admitted was out of step with what Democrats, including him, have been willing to fight for in recent decades.
In many ways his words proved prescient, auguring a first 100 days that have indeed been bolder than many had anticipated.
But there remain 1,361 days in Biden’s first term as president, and Schumer is now looking ahead. Some days ago, his office reached out and asked if I’d like to do a follow-up interview from our November conversation. I readily agreed, and am happy to share our discussion with you below. I found him especially reflective this time — which went a long way to forgiving him for filibustering me on multiple occasions.
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“Failure is not an option”: a conversation with Senator Chuck Schumer
ANAND: When we spoke in November, a lot of the future was unknown, Georgia was unknown, but you advocated for a bold beginning from Joe Biden.
ANAND: And by wide agreement, we've had one.
But on Wednesday night the president laid out an agenda that goes beyond the Covid emergency, beyond stuff we may all be able to agree on, even though, actually, we couldn't — that is about the chronic problems of this country. And it's pretty widely agreed that on a bunch of those things, it's going to require breaking the 60-vote requirement.
A lot of people are saying you're inching closer to a critical decision point on advocating for eliminating the filibuster, or seriously reforming it — or not. Are you in a different place now on that than you were when we spoke in November?
CHUCK: Well, let me tell you where I'm at, but what I want to do, Anand, since you mentioned when we last talked, let me tell you about my January 6, and it will lead into this, OK?
CHUCK: So January 6 I would describe as “the best of times, the worst of times.” That was the opening line, I think, of Charles Dickens' book, a novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.”
January 5 was elections in Georgia. We knew by the time January 5 rolled around, we thought we might be the underdogs, but we're getting close, and I'm nervous, and I watched the election returns, I stayed up all Tuesday night. Tuesday night bleeds into Wednesday morning.
I'm on the computer at 2 a.m. What's the result in Chatham County? What's the African-American turnout in DeKalb County? At 4 a.m. it becomes clear, they declared Warnock the winner, and we were clear that Ossoff was going to win as well.
So my first emotion was one of joy, of course. When you pursue a goal for a very long time — and every one of us has been through this — we've got a very important personal goal or professional goal or a family goal, and you achieve it. Your first reaction is joy, and of course mine was. My heart swelled.
But the second reaction I had — and that's going to lead to your question [Editor’s note: Eventually, it would] — crept up on me very quickly and very strongly. And it was tough to find a word for it. The best word I've come up with is awe. Not awe in the way my teenage daughters use it — “The movie's awesome, dad.” But awe as in, When the angels saw the face of God, they trembled in awe.
And I realized the huge responsibilities on my shoulders and the shoulders of our Democratic majority, despite its thinness.
And I divide them in three tremendous imperatives. The first is a substantive imperative. There's so much we had to do, and, as you said, not just getting over the Covid hump, but dealing with the infirmities in society that have grown for a long time. Climate, obviously; racial injustice; economic injustice as wealth is agglomerating to the top; and democracy, restoring our democracy. Those would be the four big categories I'd put them in. And there are a lot of sub-categories. So that was the substantive imperative.
The second was, there was a political imperative and that political imperative was that so many people say, "It doesn't make a bit of difference who I vote for, either party is the same." We had an opportunity, as Democrats, to actually show them we could deliver and deliver rather quickly.
In December, I held the Senate up for four days because McConnell wouldn't deliver the checks, and that became well-known in Georgia and throughout the country. We had the opportunity to deliver vaccines, we had the opportunity to help communities and businesses, etc., so that people would see rather quickly that this change in party — they would see a big difference, and that might make a difference and inspire them to get more involved in politics.
The third was maybe the strongest of all. It was a moral imperative. I asked myself the question — you may have asked yourself, too — why did so many people vote for Trump in the 2020 election? Seventy million people voted for a despicable, egotistical, divisive, racist man. And the answer I came to was sort of simple, and that is that people were losing faith in America and in the American dream.
If you ask the average American, "What is the American dream to you?", they'd put it simply: "It means if I work hard, I'll be doing better 10 years from now than I'm doing today, and my kids will be doing still better than me." When people lose that dream, and the sort of sunny optimism of America fades, which it has over the last 10 to 20 years, people will turn to a demagogue. People will turn to a dictator. People will turn to somebody who is divisive and bigoted, and everything like that.
And I tell this story. I have interns every summer, and they’re a diverse group. They're diverse geographically from throughout New York State, racially, religiously, by gender, by income — there are some kids of some very wealthy people, and there's some poor kids, and everyone in between. And every summer I have lunch with them. I spend a couple of hours; I enjoy it. And I've asked them a bunch of questions — I've asked the same questions since 1999. And one of them is, "Do you think you’ll be doing better economically than your parents?" And from 1999 to 2012, every single one raised his or her hand — yes.
Until 2012, everyone said yes. And I said, "Oh, great, the optimism of youth."
Starting in 2013, it was no longer a majority. This year, two raised their hands. Two. And one young lady came over to me at the end, and she was from a working-class family. And she said, "My parents could afford a house."
She said, "Let me explain why I didn't raise my hand. My parents could afford a house. I'm not sure I'll be able to. My parents got out of college debt-free. I have a huge amount of debt. And, most of all, my parents had various paths they could pursue. I don't know what path to take. The world has changed too damn fast." And she was better off than the huge percentage of Americans who, if they have a car accident that costs $500 or a healthcare bill that's $500, they don't have enough money to pay the rent or put food on the table.
If we don't present real change to the American people, and achieve it — they don't expect us to snap our fingers and everything bad goes away — but they've got to see real and dramatic change. And I would argue to you that the American Rescue Plan was a good start, but it's not enough. And we have to get much more done in terms of the big, bold action I talked to you about.
Let me just finish the January 6 story. It's just two more minutes. [Editor’s note: It wasn’t, but it was good.] It's not exactly relevant, but it's somewhat relevant. So I can't sleep. I get in the car. I go down to Washington. I get on the Senate floor at 1 p.m., first time as the putative majority leader, and don't even give a speech, and within an hour of being on the floor, a police officer with a bulletproof vest and a machine gun strapped across his waist, a big submachine gun, grabs me by the collar. It's a firm grip. I'll never forget it.
And he says, "Senator, we're in danger. We got to get out of here." And you may have seen this. They showed me in the overhead cameras. I didn't even know they had filmed me till they showed it in the impeachment trial. But we go out the door with these two police officers. We walk briskly, turning to the right. We go through a door. You can't see us. And ten seconds later, we're running back out the door the other way. I was within 15 feet of these bastards.
Reportedly, one of them said, "There's the big Jew. Let's get him."
CHUCK: And had one of them had a gun, had a couple of them blocked off the door, I wouldn't be here. Might not be here, anyway. So that's it. But that was the worst of times, now we're getting to the better of times.
We're starting to deliver to the American people, dealing with the substantive political and moral imperatives. We’ve got a ways to go.
So my view on answering your question [Editor’s note: He remembered my question!], we must, underline must, pass a big, bold Build Back Better. We're still working out the details — one bill or two bills? what's the amount? what are the pay-fors? what's the exact timing? — with the Biden administration. But we have to get it done.
We can do it largely by reconciliation, which is, as you know, 51 votes. The other huge imperative we have is S.1, which we can't do by reconciliation.
But on both of them, there are some members of my caucus — it's not close to a majority, but a few — who believe strongly in bipartisanship. They say we have to work in a bipartisan way. And I'm willing to give it a shot. Let's see if Republicans will really work with us.
I will give us a chance to do the parts of the bill that can be bipartisan. We will show our colleagues, the number who want to try bipartisanship, that we'll give it a try. But if Republicans block things, if they block climate, if they block tax increases on the rich and wealthy corporations to pay for this, then we will look at reconciliation. No final decisions have been made, but we have to get it done in reconciliation.
ANAND: But on the filibuster, I'm talking about the non-reconciliation things.
CHUCK: We’ve got to get it done, and we'll figure out the best way how, but failure's not an option. I'll put S.1 on the floor, too. We'll put big, strong bills on the floor, we'll see if our Republican colleagues join us, they'll be allowed to make amendments, we'll see if their amendments are in any way positive. And if not, we’ve got to get it done, and everything's on the table to do it.
ANAND: If at that point, they're not going to come across the aisle, you're not getting any of their votes after making this good-faith attempt, are you now ready to say, "Yes, I'm willing to get rid of the filibuster to do some of these things"?
CHUCK: I'm going to say everything is on the table, and we must get it done. Failure is not an option.
ANAND: How would you rate Biden's first hundred days relative to Obama's, looking at the rescue plan versus the stimulus in 2009 and beyond?
CHUCK: Well, look, I don't just blame Obama. I could blame all of us — everybody. The Democrats made two mistakes in 2009 and ’10. We let Republicans dilute the bills so that we stayed in recession for four or five years. (Editor’s note: Narrowly defined, the recession ended much earlier. But according to broader indicators of economic well-being beyond G.D.P., it did indeed last several years.) Job growth was much too slow.
And then we let them negotiate for a year and a half on the Affordable Care Act. And then they pulled out of the negotiations. We got something good done in the ACA, but it wasn't close to enough. We're not going to make either of those mistakes.
ANAND: Do you think of Biden now in this incarnation — he has in some ways gone on a parallel journey with you in this era — do you think he's becoming a stealth progressive?
CHUCK: We are on parallel journeys. We're both from working-class backgrounds and our base is average working people. Both of us spend lots of time talking to these folks. I go to street fairs, I go all over the place and just talk to people...
ANAND: But both of you have changed your mind on this question of how militantly you're willing to defend vigorous government action. Both of you have gone on an evolution in the last year or so in terms of your comfort with big, muscular government.
CHUCK: More than a year. In 2017, when I became minority leader, I had every member of our caucus support something called A Better Deal.
It was similar to the Biden bill. It was a trillion dollars in spending. It had infrastructure. It had anti-monopoly — break up the corporations. It had broadband for everybody. I've always believed in a strong, robust government.
But here's what I will tell you. The world has changed. And problems like climate, problems like income inequality, have gotten worse and problems that we thought we'd make progress on — racial justice — have not improved. So we need bolder and stronger action now than I might've imagined 10 years ago. But that's because the average person in America needs it more today than before.
ANAND: You may have seen this interview — James Carville was making waves this week suggesting Democrats have a “wokeness” problem — too much wokeness, too much talk of systemic racism, things like that. Do you agree or disagree with that analysis?
CHUCK: No. I think that for most Americans, and particularly young Americans, racial equality is a fair thing, and Black Lives Matter — I don't know if it was the organization; it was, I think, the slogan, the expression — had the support of 65 percent of the American people. (Editor’s note: It was measured as high as 67 percent.) Young people in particular, they grew up in a different atmosphere than our generation.
I went to a public school, James Madison High School. Five thousand students. I don't think there was one of color. Even when I went to Harvard in the '60s, very few people of color. My kids grew up in a totally different atmosphere. Their friends, you went to their weddings, it was like the United Nations. So the young people understand this, but I think there's more knowledge.
Until video, until phones could take pictures, people didn't understand the brutality visited upon Black people by certain — not all, of course — but by certain law-enforcement officers.
And let me just say one more thing, if I may. I believe in economic primacy. Improve people's economic conditions and they have hope and they believe in that American dream that I've mentioned before. Then the false gods of blaming somebody else don't work.
But if they're stymied, that's when those demagogues like Trump gain popularity.
ANAND: So I'm going to not ask you about something everybody else does, about what you think about the hypothetical AOC primary challenge. I'm going to ask you instead: She's been such a force in American politics, when we talk about this progressive turn. And you've done some things with her in recent months...
CHUCK: Yeah. We get along. We've worked together on a whole number of issues.
ANAND: I wonder what you've learned from her as a next-generation politician who's clearly communicated in a very effective way.
CHUCK: I'll answer the question a different way. [Editor’s note: The filibuster is alive and well.] The person who has those kinds of views whom I'm very close to is Bernie Sanders. And he's not the younger generation, but he and I think alike in many ways, because you need a strong, active government.
ANAND: Has he changed your mind on anything fundamental in recent years?
CHUCK: Yeah. I'll give you a great example. So when we won the Georgia election, I spoke to Stacey Abrams, and there are eight African-American women's groups who were very active. And I said, "OK, we're going to get Medicaid expansion. Give money to rural hospitals. This and that." And you know what one of those ladies said to me? "What about the checks?"
Bernie Sanders had also been pushing the $2,000 checks for people. And, at first, when he said it, I said, "I don't know." But that's what mattered the most to people. They needed money to feed their kids. They needed money, and a government program is good, but money in their hands was really good.
And Bernie was right. And one of the reasons I'm pushing so hard for the $50,000 forgiveness of student loans with Elizabeth Warren, even though Joe Biden hasn't gone along with it — again, it's the same thing. You have to show people that government works for them, and that will inspire.
ANAND: On a more parochial topic, who is impressing you right now in the New York mayor’s race?
CHUCK: I haven't really dipped into it.
ANAND: Do you think it’s Andrew Yang's to lose for now?
CHUCK: No, I think there are too many undecided people, but I couldn't even make a judgment.
ANAND: I want to ask you a little bit about the city, particularly Manhattan. New York City is so dependent on commercial real estate, on the office, the pre-pandemic office, and people coming in to work in droves. And that model is really going to be in flux for the next many years.
CHUCK: It is. But here's what I think. There are going to be a number of centers where people want to agglomerate, and they love diversity and people of all different backgrounds and all different ways of thinking, and they're drawn to be near each other. I think riding the subway is a strength that New Yorkers like, because you mix with everybody under the sun. I think there are going to be enough people who don't want to sit in the house in the suburbs and be on Zoom all day, who want to mix and mingle and be sort of where the action is. So I am optimistic about the future of New York.
ANAND: I'm not so much asking about whether there's going to be a mass desertion. I just wonder whether you think the city will change in a fundamental way, be less defined by those offices and be more defined by, I don't know, artists or manufacturing or different things.
CHUCK: One of the things I was able to get into the bill in December and then augment it was Save Our Stages, which helps artists and performance venues and performance spaces, which were going under. The amount of support and encouragement I got from that is huge.
So I think New York is changing from an office place to a much more — the economy is much more diverse. But I think people want to live together.
ANAND: I want to ask you about Joe Manchin. I know he's one of those that you need to persuade on some of these things. I think it feels to a lot of people on the outside that he's on a bit of a power trip about this stuff, that he likes kind of feeling like the prime minister of the country with his decision-making power.
CHUCK: Here's what I say. So I have a leadership team that meets every Monday at a quarter of five. And they are 12 senators now. And we discuss everything — the next week, the next month. On my leadership team are Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin and Mark Warner, and then people in between. And I ask three things of everyone on that team. First, respect one another. Don't cast motives or aspersions — you're not doing this because of this or that.
Second, walk in the other person's shoes. West Virginia is not New York.
But, third, we have to be unified at the end of the day, or we lose everything and we'll get nothing done. And so far, on all of the major votes, Anand, we've been together.
ANAND: I want to talk about some parts of the big, bold agenda that have fallen to the wayside. The public option, which Biden advocated for...
CHUCK: Oh, yeah, Bernie Sanders and I agree on this. I believe we should be negotiating — we just talked about this at some length; he and I must talk almost every single day — Medicare negotiating with the drug companies and using that money to expand Medicare.
ANAND: And what about the reduction in the Medicare eligibility age or adding a public option?
CHUCK: Yeah, I'd be for either of those, both of those.
ANAND: And is that going to be brought to the floor?
CHUCK: Well, we're going to push it. It's too early. I want to pass the biggest, boldest bill that, of course, we can pass. And we’ve got to figure all that out. We're going to try to fight hard to try to get these in the bill.
ANAND: And what about the $15 minimum wage? People who are, right now, making $7.25 an hour — can they count on, let's say by the end of this year, that being something that you all get done?
CHUCK: We're going to fight hard to raise the minimum wage. Absolutely. And we're meeting. Bernie and myself and Patty Murray and Ron Wyden, people who are for the $15, are meeting on a regular basis with the Democrats who voted against it. And we're trying to see if we can move forward.
ANAND: Finally, if Justice Breyer is, as many are urging him to, thinking about stepping down to give the president plenty of time to nominate and confirm a successor, given past Republican behavior, would you encourage him to consider that?
CHUCK: No comment.
Chuck Schumer is the Senate majority leader. This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
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