Chuck Schumer fired off a warning at a caucus-wide retreat in January: Senate Republicans will try to pick off Democrats, one by one, to join the GOP effort to dismantle Obamacare.
If that happens, Schumer said in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, Democrats are finished. And so the 48-member caucus must stick together to try to save it.
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With that message, relayed by a source familiar with the episode, the New York Democrat and newly minted minority leader swiftly united an often-squabbling caucus against efforts to repeal Obamacare.
Months later, it helped deliver a major, though perhaps temporary, victory Tuesday when Mitch McConnell’s bid to repeal Obamacare stalled — a cause that had similarly united Republicans for the seven years since the landmark health care bill became law.
Now, as Senate GOP leaders punt a key vote on their health care bill until after the July 4 recess, Schumer faces his next challenge in his first major legislative battle as the top Senate Democrat: keeping his party and grass-roots allies mobilized for at least two more weeks, as Republicans rewrite their plan and hunt for votes.
Schumer also has to protect his moderate members up for reelection in 2018, who already have faced repeated attacks from the National Republican Senatorial Committee over their pledge to shield Obamacare from efforts to unravel it. President Donald Trump has also previewed that playbook, tweeting Tuesday that a “failed, expensive and dangerous ObamaCare” was the Democrats’ legacy. Trump is already trying to blame Democrats for obstructionism for any problems with the health system.
“Complacency is not something that we can countenance. We have to continue letting people know how bad this is,” Schumer told reporters on Tuesday. “Despite the fact that they have an amazing message machine… on this issue, it has sunk through. Only 17 or 16 percent of Americans support Trumpcare. They are really getting the message. We’re gonna keep doing that.”
Liberal activists were not always certain they could count on him to aggressively take on the GOP.
But earlier this year, Schumer quickly worked to ensure all 48 members of the Democratic Caucus — from Joe Manchin of West Virginia to Bernie Sanders of Vermont — would take a firm stance against repealing Obamacare, a position that solidified in January as efforts to dismantle the law ramped up.
“When they saw that I — in no way, shape or form — could vote to hurt every part of my state, every demographic in my state, I think that gave him the [sign] that we’re going to be united on this,” Manchin said.
That included any attempts from Republicans, limited as they were, to quietly reach out to Democrats on potential bipartisan health care talks.
When GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana — who had been shopping around their own Obamacare replacement proposal — asked centrist Democrats including Manchin, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Donnelly of Indiana to chat about health care, Schumer gave the moderates the green light to go ahead, as long as they stressed that complete repeal was off the table.
“Whenever we started to do what each of us do, which is try to go solve a problem, he would remind us that there would be a time for that, but first we had to be together and send a message: It’s not OK to unravel the health care system,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, one of Schumer’s closest allies, said. “And he’s been very effective.”
A consummate dealmaker at heart, Schumer has nonetheless embraced a role leading a restive Democratic Party eager to oppose President Donald Trump at essentially every turn.
The minority leader has added Sanders and other liberal upstarts such as Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Brian Schatz of Hawaii to his broader leadership team, and Democratic leadership has a standing meeting with liberal groups such as MoveOn.org, Our Revolution, UltraViolet and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee every other Thursday.
One Senate Democratic aide said of Schumer: “I think he’s realized the value of the activist communities out there.”
“We have a diverse caucus and he’s got just as much enthusiasm among the moderates as he does among the progressives,” Schatz said. “And I think he’s adapted very quickly to the age of Trump and the era of social media. These are difficult times but he’s the right leader for these difficult times.”
Schumer’s relationship with the left wasn’t always as warm as it became in the last weeks of the heated health care fight.
Liberal activists pressed Senate Democrats for a procedural blockade in protest of the GOP’s secretive Obamacare repeal process, but the caucus didn’t ramp up obstruction tactics until after passage of a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill. Another provocative maneuver, to shut down committee hearings, could have disrupted high profile testimonies, particularly in the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Angel Padilla, policy director at the anti-Trump group Indivisible, said activists “were really nervous” as they first urged Democratic senators to ramp up the opposition: “We thought, ‘They’re not going to do it because they’re Democrats and they don’t do this stuff.’”
After Democrats held their first Monday night talk-a-thon savaging the Republican repeal bill last week, however, activists rallied to their side — while constantly nudging for more resistance.
Democratic leaders “are learning to be receptive to where people are,” said Center for American Progress Action Fund campaign director Emily Tisch Sussman. “Understandably, they still have some deference to process, particularly in the Senate versus the House. … So they’re getting there.”
Still, the unity Schumer cultivated helped Democrats more easily exploit the divisions in the Republican Conference, whose members ranged from those who were fretful that dismantling Obamacare would harm their constituents to those who were frustrated that the repeal didn’t go far enough.
Schumer and the Democrats were handed some gifts along the way, including a private comment made by Trump himself that the House version of Obamacare repeal was “mean.” They also set out a goal of defeating the health care bill on a procedural vote to begin debate, rather than filibustering the bill with endless amendments once it got to the floor, as activists initially sought.
The New York Democrat is well aware that heeding the ornery spirit of the liberal grass roots can bring huge energy to Democrats’ push to hamper Trump’s agenda. Now that the GOP has postponed the repeal vote, activists are expecting him to not forget that lesson.
“The moment Democrats announced they were going to start shutting down business as usual in the Senate, health care leapt back onto the front page of newspapers, Republicans started falling off the bill,” MoveOn Washington director Ben Wikler said in an interview. “We are optimistic that Democrats have seen the effects of standing and fighting and are going to keep doing it.”
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, warned that the postponed vote could prove a temporary victory if Republicans regroup after the Fourth of July recess. And he urged the Democratic base to maintain this week’s level of energy and public pressure.
“I just hope that we use this time to wake more Americans up” to the consequences of Obamacare repeal, he said in an interview. “One of the biggest dangers we have right now is complacency, is silence, is people sitting on the sidelines.”