WASHINGTON -- As Congress heads home for the August recess, perhaps no member can boast of having a more productive first seven months than Sen. Chuck Schumer.
Once regarded as a crafty partisan, the New York Democrat is gunning for the title of a modern-day Henry Clay -- adjusted, of course, for the rates of modern-day compromising. He's been at the heart of the major deals on immigration reform and to confirm President Barack Obama's lingering executive nominees. He also been involved with bipartisan budget talks designed to avert a shutdown this fall.
On the eve of heading back to his home state, Schumer took a moment to reflect on the work done and how much remains. He left filibuster reform on the table should Republicans hold up the president's judicial nominee. He pined for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) -- the irrepressible anti-immigration reform conservative -- to keep talking, gathering that it could only help the pro-reform cause. He had harsh words for Russian President Vladimir Putin, but told U.S. Olympic athletes to keep training (unlike Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), he's not sold on an Olympic boycott). And, for one of the first times, he addresses the circus that is the New York City mayor's race, where his former protege Anthony Weiner has sexted his way into marginality.
"You have to have an internal gyroscope," he said.
He also took a moment to reflect on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his danish-sharing buddy and unexpected political partner in this unexpectedly productive process.
As we're heading into the August recess, how would you judge the general state of affairs among this Congress?
Well look, I think the Senate has had a pretty good six months, a lot better than either house has had in a while. There have been a good number of bipartisan initiatives that have passed, of course immigration, but the farm bill, the agreement that we worked out on the nominations, the water bill, Violence Against Women Act, the fiscal cliff -- quite a bit has been passed in a bipartisan mode in the Senate. The House seems to just be dysfunctional. It's sort of breaking down.
How did the Senate become this bastion of productivity?
I think because there are fewer extreme people in the Senate and the desire to compromise and work together is stronger. Look, if you didn't have that redistricting that the House has, I think the House would be much more similar.
So you don't buy the idea that Sens. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul have basically driven John McCain into your arms?
Well, the problem is, why aren't there more John McCains? It's not a mystery why there's a John McCain. The question is, why hasn't even a stronger group in the House created some John McCains? And the redistricting system makes it much harder.
On immigration reform, can you put enough pressure on the House to get a big bill...
Here's what I think: I've been pleasantly surprised over the last few weeks.
I have. Yes, I think there are many in the House, leadership and otherwise, who really want to pass a bill. It won't be the same as our bill. But they want to get a bill done.
What makes you feel that way? I've been reading the clips and I don't get that sense at all.
Well, again, I don't want to name specific names here on the record, but the fact that people are entertaining a DREAM Act [Editor's Note: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) has been involved in drafting such a measure.], the fact that people are entertaining different aspects of the pathway to citizenship; and I think they're also learning that the Senate bill is not what the right-wing radio commentators are saying, that it's really tough on border security, and that it is far from amnesty. Because the way to sort of get right with the law is not very easy for anybody.
Does it help that you have people like Steve King out there talking about drug mules?
Yes, I think Steve King, the more he speaks, the more he helps us get a bill passed. So I am more optimistic today than I have been since our bill passed.
But you're always optimistic.
I haven't heard you sound pessimistic about anything, except maybe for the New York Giants.
I've so far been right on immigration.
Looking more broadly, is there anything the president could be doing differently to move his economic agenda through Congress?
I think what the president did, I really respected it, because he knows how difficult it is to get bipartisan. Look, let's face it: The issue of the budget, spending and taxes are far and away the most difficult issues for the parties to bridge the gap, you know? Even the most moderate of Republicans is probably considerably to the right of the most moderate of Democrats on this issue ... So I think the president, he did the right thing. Because what he's trying to do is shift the ground on which we stand when we debate economic issues. From just cutting government, which has been sort of the major platform, even for Bill Clinton, for 30 years, to, "How do you help the middle-class?" And the corollary of that is the kind of devastating cuts that have been proposed by Republicans in, say, the Ryan budget.
It seems that even House Republicans are now a little alarmed by the size of the cuts.
Look, I think the fact that they couldn't pass a budget [meaning an appropriations bill], the fact that they're so hung up on a farm bill, is going to help us. They're in the death throes of this hard right.
Well, okay, but --
You know, this hard right paroxysm that has dominated their ways since 2010.
But back to the original question, which is what the president could do differently, it sounds like the only thing you think he can do is wait for Republicans to implode.
But he can set the table. When he talks about how the middle class needs things like roads and community college programs that help people get jobs, that helps because that means the public ... it's a ricochet in a certain sense. It goes from the president to the public to the Republicans, and it doesn't affect the hard right tea party folks, but it does affect the mainstream people.
The problem, though, is we only have a few months until the budget has to be done.
So let's say you were in Vegas, what kind of money would you put on a shutdown happening?
Frankly, I think that the mood for a shutdown in America is so negative that our Republican friends are going to have to back off one way or another. They're going to have to figure out how -- given that they have 50 to 70 hard right people who want to bring the whole House down on their own heads. But I think that's what's going to happen. I would bet money that they can't, they won't be able to, and won't go ahead with using a debt ceiling as leverage. And then when it comes to the [continuing resolution to fund the government], the same kinds of problems they're running into -- when they have such a severe cut in their spending -- that they're running into in the appropriations bills, is going to amplify itself in the negotiations. I'm optimistic there, too.
Okay. Shifting gears a little bit, on executive branch nominees -- you got a deal on that that clearly produced results. Are you prepared to reconsider filibuster reform if the Republicans hold up judicial nominations?
I wouldn't take it off the table. When it comes to executive nominations, we don't expect the Republicans to go along with every single one. But ATF [Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms] was typical of what they've done. They weren't against the nominee, they just were against the whole department. On judicial nominees, we'll have to wait and see what happens. I feel very strongly that we have to put more vacancies in the courts, particularly the D.C. circuit, and let's see what they do.
So, you're heading out for August recess, which has actually been a problematic time for Democrats in years past. What are the three pieces of advice you would give members as they start talking to their constituents?
I'd give them one piece of advice three times: Talk about jobs and the middle class.
Well, I think you can talk about immigration as an economic issue. [The Congressional Budget Office] said it would grow the economy 3.5 percent in the first decade, the GDP. And no government program, whether it's a Democratic program of spending or a Republican program of cuts, can claim that.
If Republicans chose to repeal Obamacare for a 41st time [they recently passed their 40th repeal through the House], do you think it would be successful?
No. Here's the other thing that's changing -- it's a combination -- it's middle-class incomes are declining, so the middle class is more anguished about what affects them. But second, and so, they're tired of obstruction, whatever form of obstruction. So when the Republicans just keep trying to repeal Obamacare, even people who don't like Obamacare say, "Enough already."
Do you see Obamacare as a liability? Do you think it needs more explanation? Do you see it getting better over time?
Well, I think people have to keep talking about the good parts of it. And the administration has shown some flexibility.
You're talking about the employee mandate delay?
I think that makes sense.
Switching to foreign affairs, you had some tough words for Russia yesterday over Edward Snowden's asylum. Should Olympic athletes stop training for the time being?
No, I don't want to punish our athletes. I disagreed with my good friend Lindsey [Graham], because these guys and gals train for years and years, and to punish them, even inadvertently, doesn't make sense.
So what steps should be taken here?
I think we should look at everything up and down the line, whether it's economic, political, or geopolitcal, diplomatic. We should not just give Russia a free pass. Putin, I'd say two things: Number one, he seems to feel that he can get away with almost anything. And number two, he's a bit of a bully. And I'm from Brooklyn. You've gotta stand up to bullies. [On Sunday morning, Schumer suggested moving the G20 summit from St. Petersburg as a way to punish Putin.]
Not too long ago, you had a reputation as the partisan warrior and now it seems like you're the consummate dealmaker. Have you viewed your role in the Senate as changing over time?
Not really. I always liked trying to put together legislation. The crime bill is still one of the accomplishments of which I'm most proud. You know, it helped my city grow from 7 million people to 8.2 million people in two decades. But, you know, there is a time and place for everything. When I took over the DSCC in 2006, we had 45 senators, and my mandate for my caucus was "do what it takes to win." I think right now, there's a need for bipartisan compromise, and that's what I enjoy most frankly, you know? But there's a season for everything.
I have to end on a rather sensitive question.
I am sure I know what it is.
I'm sure you do. How about this: What is your general perception of the state of New York City politics and the campaigns right now?
I think people are really [he chuckles and pauses] -- as much as people have specific bones to pick with [Mayor] Michael Bloomberg on one issue or another, I think the general view, which I agree with, was he ran the city very well. And the challenge that people have is, deep in their gut, "Can the city continue to run well?"
Do you think it can?
Yes, I do.
Does it require a certain type of leader?
You have to be able to have an internal gyroscope. It's a very hard job, and you have to have an internal gyroscope of what your vision is for the city and move forward with it, even when various groups, interest groups from all over the lot, try to stand in your way.