It’s not the job he was expecting, but Sen. Charles Schumer was elected Senate minority leader by his Democratic colleagues in a closed-door meeting Wednesday.
Schumer, D-N.Y., will succeed retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, when the new Congress convenes next year.
In a nod to his showing in the Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, was elected chairman of outreach.
Democrats avoided a potentially messy fight by electing Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, assistant Democratic leader.
The move allowed Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, to remain as Democratic whip, the No. 2 leadership position. Murray, who won a fifth term last week, had considered challenging Durbin but instead was chosen to the No. 3 position.
In the new post, she’ll help Schumer shape the party’s agenda and strategy. She’ll also maintain her role as the top-ranked Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Murray said Senate Democrats face “a tough road ahead of us” with Republicans in control of Congress and President-elect Donald Trump moving to the White House on Jan. 20. But she said the party will be “ready to fight back – tooth and nail – if they try to divide our country, hurt our constituents or drag us backwards."
Schumer, Reid’s hand-picked successor, thought he’d supplant Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, as the chamber’s majority leader.
So did several political analysts who predicted that Democrats would win enough Senate seats on election night to reclaim the majority they lost in 2014.
But Donald Trump’s unexpected win helped power some vulnerable incumbent Republican senators to victory and dashed Democratic hopes.
Now Schumer finds himself a man in the middle – a potential firewall against the agendas of Trump and a GOP congressional majority and the leader of a Senate minority with an increasingly demanding populist wing and more moderate incumbents worried about tough reelection bids in 2018.
I expect Schumer to be Chuck Schumer, the good, the bad, the ugly of being Chuck Schumer
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Senate Democrats and independents will have to defend 25 seats – 13 in states that Trump won or narrowly lost - compared with just eight for Republicans.
“Schumer now becomes the most influential Democrat in Washington,” said Jim Manley, a former top Democratic congressional aide. “As leader he’s going to have to juggle competing factions of the party. There are some, especially those up in 2018, that are going to be anxious to try to look for ways to cut deals with Republicans. And there are an awful lot of Democrats, especially from the progressive wing of the party, that are prepared to do everything they can to stop (Trump’s) agenda.”
That wing includes Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, liberals who believe tougher Wall Street regulation, debt-free higher education, and other issues are the Democrats’ best route back to the majority.
Schumer has already made an overture to Sanders and Warren. He joined them in endorsing Rep. Keith Ellison’s candidacy for chair of the Democratic National Committee. Ellison, D-Minn., is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
“We appreciate that he endorsed Keith Ellison,” said Charles Idleson, a spokesman for National Nurses United, a group that endorsed Sanders’ Democratic bid for president. “It’s the direction the party needs to go.”
Still, some liberals are concerned about Schumer’s rise to Democratic leader. About two dozen protesters briefly occupied his Washington office Monday, criticizing his ties to Wall Street and calling for Sanders to be chosen as Senate Democratic leader.
Republicans see Schumer, 65, as a potential partner and a problem. He’s shown a willingness to work across the aisle, but he’s also exhibited a fierce partisan streak during his tenure in the House of Representatives and Senate.
“I expect Schumer to be Chuck Schumer, the good, the bad, the ugly of being Chuck Schumer,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Tuesday. “The good: he’s a deal-maker. The bad: he can throw a punch. When it comes to politics, he knows how to play it. He’s from New York and he can get kind of ugly.”
McConnell, who’s had a contentious relationship with Reid, D-Nevada, thinks he’ll get along with Schumer.
“He’s got a job to do and I got a job to do,” McConnell said. “I respect him. I think he’s very smart. And I think we’ll be fine. We both have roles to play. I don’t expect him to enthusiastically embrace my agenda.”
Rob Hotakainen contributed to this report.