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How Schumer explains his Senate dilemma

Last July, trying to get Sen. Joe Manchin to let Democrats move forward on their agenda, Chuck Schumer came up with a plan. He had the West Virginia Democrat lay out what he could accept and how much he’d be willing to spend. Manchin signed his name. Schumer signed his.

The Senate majority leader, though, didn’t tell House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about the document, who later made clear that she felt blindsided. As has never been previously disclosed, Schumer also didn’t tell President Joe Biden or top White House aides. They didn’t find out until after months of work and drama trying to get a $3.5 trillion bill written even though Manchin told Schumer his limit was $1.5 trillion.

They felt blindsided. Looking back, many involved in the negotiations wonder if that was one of the fatal flaws that now leaves them without the President’s signature legislation and headed into midterms with a narrative of dysfunction — and to top it off, Manchin on Tuesday declared that the bill is “dead.”

Schumer, a Democrat from New York, got the monkey’s paw version of his dream job — Senate majority leader, but of a narrowly divided chamber with two members who revel in bucking the majority, and a president who will forever think of himself as a master of the Senate. Schumer thinks he’s handled Manchin and the Biden agenda as well as he could, given the realities of the longest period of a 50-50 Senate in history, constantly trying to strike a balance between bills that both Manchin and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and everyone in between could vote for.

In an exclusive interview, he addressed the tensions among his own members and with the White House, while looking ahead to the coming Supreme Court nomination as a much-needed reset toward action and unity — but even as he wants to move quickly to confirm Biden’s pick, the sudden illness of one of his members underscored the limit of his ambitions.

Schumer pointed out that he didn’t set the agenda, but argued he and his colleagues have excelled at moving it nonetheless, with successes on infrastructure, confirming judges and enacting Covid-19 relief that he says far overshadow what was left on the table.

“I think we have shown that we’ve gotten a lot done,” Schumer said. “I spent the last week in New York. And you know, obviously, we haven’t gotten everything everyone wants done, but people are quite pleased and impressed with what we’ve gotten done.”

For what Democrats haven’t gotten done, most leaders pin the blame mainly on Manchin, seeing him as a negotiator who continued to walk away from his own offers and would never get to “yes.” Yet they see Schumer as unable to corral his most important swing vote — and wondering whether Democratic leaders should have rallied around the moderate Democrat’s proposal and force progressives in both chambers to accept the more modest plan against their wishes. To Schumer critics, this and much of his approach to leadership are often bound up in avoiding telling his members “no.”

In dealing with Manchin, Schumer insists he had it right. The document, he said, wasn’t “an agreement,” which noted that the leader would try to change Manchin’s mind and had provisions listed and two signatures on it. It was all, he insisted, part of his strategic way of listening to keep the process moving, an effort that eventually led to passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, even as the larger Build Back Better bill has since been derailed.

“Manchin told me this is what he stood for. I said, ‘I’m going to try to dissuade you.’ But he said, ‘I want you to know where I’m at, but I will vote to move the budget resolution at ($3.5 trillion) forward.’ That’s what happened. There was no agreement.”

And, he argued, that all the relevant parties knew where Manchin stood, even as they hadn’t seen the document that Manchin gave Schumer.

“People knew Joe Manchin’s positions,” Schumer said. “He speaks to the press regularly, speaks to the White House regularly. He talked to Pelosi regularly. People knew his positions.”

The White House and Pelosi, though, did not know the key position that left them chasing a chimera through the summer and into the fall, as Biden’s poll numbers dropped and the Virginia governor’s race slipped away. Yet had Schumer embraced Manchin’s proposal in July, it would have almost certainly caused a progressive revolt in the House and could have scuttled the effort.

Manchin still came out of the process complaining Schumer wasn’t listening.

“Nothing,” Manchin told WEBICNEWS when asked whether Schumer had been listening to him during the talks, as he shook his head.

Schumer disagreed.

“I listened very carefully,” Schumer said.


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