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Schumer's Moment: Shutdown Puts Spotlight on Dem Leader


Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., explains to reporters how his negotiations with President Donald Trump broke down Jan. 19 as quarreling politicians in Washington eventually failed to keep the government in business, at the Capitol in Washing

For Republicans, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer is the face of the government shutdown. For immigration advocates, he’s their best hope.

Perhaps the most powerful Democrat in Washington, Schumer has so far succeeded in keeping his party unified in a bid to use the government funding fight to push for protections for some 700,000 young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children. But he has little margin for error in this first major test of his muscle and maneuvering as leader. The pragmatist is balancing the demands of a liberal base eager for a fight with President Donald Trump and the political realities of red-state senators anxious about their re-election prospects this fall.

Some of those senators met with Schumer Sunday morning and urged a compromise to end the shutdown.

“The question is, how do we get out of here in a way that reflects what the majority of the body wants to do,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who is among the Democrats on the ballot in November. She added: “It is critically important that we get this done today.”

Yet the weekend closed without a deal, meaning thousands of federal employees will wake up Monday either being told to stay home or work without pay. The Senate scheduled a vote Monday to advance a bill that would extend government funding through Feb. 8. In a bid to win over a few holdouts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also pledged to take up legislation on immigration and other top Democratic priorities if they weren’t already addressed by the time that spending bill would expire.

It’s unclear whether McConnell’s pledge will be enough to sway the handful of Democrats he needs to pass a spending bill. Democratic aides said that while Schumer, who spent the weekend calling members on his flip phone, appears to be holding the party together for now, some senators were eagerly searching for a way out of the shutdown.

Despite controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, Republicans have pinned the blame for the shutdown squarely on Schumer, accusing him of being captive to liberals and advocacy groups who oppose any spending package that doesn’t result in a solution for the young immigrants. The White House and GOP officials have branded the funding gap the “Schumer Shutdown,” spreading the phrase as a hashtag on social media.

Immigration advocates are hoping Schumer will see that as badge of honor, but there is anxiety about his resolve.

“He went to the mats,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of the immigration advocacy group America’s Voice. “He had the backbone to lead his caucus into a high-stakes, high risk battle. It thrilled progressives. But if the shutdown ends because Democrats blink first, the era of good feeling quickly will be replaced by anger and disappointment.”

Schumer isn’t the most natural fit for the role of champion of the left.

The energetic, four-term senator is viewed as more of a pragmatist than an ideologue. He has long faced skepticism from some liberals, thanks, in part, to his Wall Street ties. He frustrated many Democrats with his opposition to the Iran nuclear deal championed by President Barack Obama.

In 2013, Schumer was part of a bipartisan group of senators who worked on a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s fractured immigration laws. The package, which would have created a pathway to citizenship for millions of people in the U.S. illegally, was narrowly approved in the Senate but never taken up by the House

Just last month, immigration advocates, including members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, were furious with Schumer and Democratic leaders for not forcing a fight over the young immigrants. Democratic aides said that despite the pressure from some of his party’s most energized forces, Schumer knew his caucus would not hold together at that point. Indeed, 18 Democratic senators ultimately voted for a short-term spending bill that kicked both the budget battle and the immigration fight into the new year.

The dynamic shifted in January. Democrats began the year hopeful that Trump, who has expressed sympathy for the young immigrants, would be willing to make a big deal. When those plans collapsed, Schumer found more enthusiasm even among moderate Democrat senators to withhold support for a spending bill that didn’t address immigration, even if it meant forcing a shutdown.

He was helped along, according to multiple Democratic aides, by revelations that Trump had told lawmakers during a private meeting that he wanted less immigration from “shithole” countries in Africa and more from places like Norway.

Schumer experienced a sea change after the remarks, according to one aide, who like other Democrats and Trump advisers, insisted on anonymity in order to describe private deliberations.

Still, Schumer entertained one last opportunity to make a deal with Trump on Friday, when the president summoned him to the White House for a cheeseburger lunch. The two New Yorkers have a long history with each other and both have entertained the idea that they could be negotiating partners, though they’ve so far had little success.

Schumer arrived at the White House with the outlines of a deal he believed his caucus would support. One Democratic aide said the agreement included “significant appropriations” for spending on Trump’s proposed border wall. The White House has since disputed that characterization, with Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney saying Sunday that what Schumer offered Trump was “authorization for funding, not an appropriation” — meaning no guarantee of money.

Schumer started spreading word of a possible agreement to his members. But within hours, White House chief of staff John Kelly called Schumer to say that the deal he’d discussed with the president was too liberal for the White House to accept.

As of Sunday night, it was the last discussion Schumer has had with the White House.

White House officials say Trump feels burned by Schumer after the immigration negotiations and they don’t view him as an honest broker. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the senator’s “memory is hazy” and his recollection of Friday’s meeting is “false.”

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