POLITICS

Chuck Schumer's Enjoying The Freedom Of Life In The Minority

02/04/2015 02:47 pm ET | Updated Feb 04, 2015
Mike Pont via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) is jazzed. Well, as jazzed as one could be at 4:30 p.m. on a Tuesday in the United States Senate.

A matter of hours have passed since Democrats successfully blocked Senate Republicans from passing a bill that would have stripped the president's executive actions on immigration reform as a condition for funding the Department of Homeland Security. The Democrats managed this victory without a single defection. That came on the heels of a fight over whether to authorize the Keystone XL pipeline, a fight the party ultimately lost -- but not before scoring a few messaging points and keeping the margin narrow enough to sustain a presidential veto.

Perhaps it's backward-looking and wrong to say, but there are political perks to being in the minority, Schumer acknowledges. Reclining on his couch, a bottle of water in his hand, his tie loosened and his shoes off, he waxes about his newfound liberties.

"It is actually fun. It is really fun to be in the minority," he tells The Huffington Post. "You have a little more freedom in the minority. It is easier to take a theme, stick to it and constantly go after it."

"So, look, we would rather be in the majority because we are a party that wants to do things to make middle-class lives better," he adds later. "But it is a little easier, particularly when you are trying to message, when you are in the minority."

Few political minds in Congress are more hyperkinetic than Schumer's. In 2006, the New Yorker, who is third in line for his party's leadership in the Senate, helped navigate the Democrats' last march out of the wilderness that is minority status. He's keen to do it again 10 years later.

"I'm optimistic we can take back the Senate," said Schumer. He cited the party's robust candidate-recruiting efforts as a reason for his optimism, though he steadfastly declined to name any high-profile recruits.

Still, the path to the 2016 elections is not without hurdles. While Democrats may revel in their ability to muck things up for Republicans, that approach carries the risk of being charged with the same kind of minority-led obstructionism that Schumer and others lamented from 2008 through 2014. Boasting about an improved economy under President Barack Obama, meanwhile, could alienate the very people who feel like the recovery hasn't helped them personally.

"We can say that the economy has gotten better," said Schumer. "But if we say things are good, that’s when you lose."

Then there are the specific legislative battles that Democrats must navigate. Tuesday's vote on DHS funding didn't so much resolve the issue as put it off for later. The agency's funding is set to run out before the end of February, and the party is banking on Republicans being publicly shamed into passing a bill that is clean, or nearly so. A "clean" bill, in this case, means one free of riders aimed at striking down Obama's executive actions on immigration reform.

"They'll have no choice," Schumer said. "One way or the other, they will have to back off. They are smarter to do it sooner rather than later."

At this juncture, it appears, Republicans haven't accepted that same conclusion. Michael Steel, spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), told The Huffington Post that GOP leadership would continue reflecting the will of the American people who "want us to fund the Department of Homeland Security, but they also want us to block the president's executive orders."

The Keystone issue presents complications as well. While there was unity among Senate Democrats on DHS funding, nine members defected on a bill to authorize the pipeline's construction. Schumer largely sidestepped questions about crafting a compromise that included more clean energy initiatives and carbon offsets to assuage the concerns of members like himself. Three years ago, he said, that might have done the trick. But with oil prices low and concerns over climate change high, it was "an uphill fight" to get to a veto-proof 67 votes. And besides, he added, the job-creation element of the project has been overstated.

"Thirty-five permanent jobs?" he said, referring to the projected long-term employment that the State Department has said would result from the pipeline's construction. "A Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise produces more jobs than that."

For the record, The Huffington Post reached out to three KFC franchises in Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky. They employed 13, 20, and 30 people respectively -- a relatively poultry (sic) figure.

And, of course, there is the ever-dicey issue of health care. While the Affordable Care Act is not the politically radioactive force it was in 2013 and 2014, the Supreme Court could end up thrusting it back into the mix with an adverse ruling on the legality of subsidies awarded to purchase coverage on federally run exchanges. Already, pressure has been building on Congress and the White House to unveil what they would do in light of that ruling. Neither group has divulged much information, and some Democratic advocates, like the Center for American Progress' Neera Tanden, have speculated that no such "fix" could actually pass Congress.

Which is why it was surprising to hear Schumer state his belief that "the administration has a backup plan," and that "I believe they don't want to talk about it for fear of jeopardizing the case." An aide to Schumer later clarified that the senator "doesn't have any knowledge of a White House backup plan and was just speculating." A White House official, meanwhile, pointed to press secretary Josh Earnest's recent comments that crafting such a backup plan would be largely pointless, since congressional Republicans have explicitly said they would not consider a legislative solution.

For all the plotting that may or may not be underway in anticipation of a court ruling, a DHS shutdown or a debt ceiling showdown (coming this fall!), many of the Democratic Party's campaign prospects are tied up in variables not yet known. The lead-up to the 2014 election was dominated by a sequence of events and presidential setbacks that few could have anticipated, from border crossings to Ebola to the rise of the Islamic State and the failures of the Department of Veterans Affairs' medical system.

Still, Schumer seemed outright confident that the party won't be tripped up like that again. A general election year, which will likely bring with it a higher Democratic turnout, gives the party more of a buffer, he argued. And the humiliations of 2014 have helped Democrats get their heads in the game.

"I think losing focused people’s minds on, 'Hey, we better be more unified,'" he said. "'We better get together and be more focused on our main message, which is middle-class jobs and middle-class incomes.'"

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