Inside Schumer's infrastructure gamble

Shortly before Chuck Schumer cued up a vote on the staggering bipartisan infrastructure agreement reached by five of his centrists, he gathered them all in person for a gut check.

The Senate majority leader wanted to explain his thinking in greater detail to the Democrats who’ve labored to cut a nearly $600 billion deal with Republicans, according to two sources familiar with the meeting. He needed to make sure everyone in his tight-knit 50-member caucus was behind him before taking a gamble that could endanger the bipartisan talks he’s spent weeks supporting.

Schumer emerged from the meeting confident that his aggressive tactics had buy-in from Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jon Tester of Montana, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Mark Warner of Virginia. Though many Republicans claim Schumer is undercutting the bipartisan talks by forcing a Wednesday vote before negotiations have concluded, his most important swing votes all sided with him behind closed doors before he made a move.

Schumer “thought this was the best way to keep advancing the bill," Tester said of the leader's hardball move, adding in an interview that the New York Democrat "doesn't want to kill" the bipartisan deal. "And so I agreed. We all agreed. … He is totally bought in to getting this across the finish line.”

Since deciding to move forward, Schumer has taken pains to explain that work on a bill can continue through the weekend if that’s what it takes, even as he seeks to impose a deadline on a back-and-forth that otherwise might never conclude. But by setting up a Wednesday roll call, he’s channeling progressive Democrats who have long doubted that Republicans will ever put the votes up to give President Joe Biden a bipartisan win.

As Schumer’s Monday afternoon meeting with the centrists partly illustrates, he has also been careful to court all corners of his caucus. He wants to make sure that if the entire deal-making attempt falls apart, moderate Democrats he needs to execute the rest of Biden’s agenda don’t blame him.

It hasn’t all been smooth, and even some of his members had second thoughts on Tuesday. During a party lunch, Manchin debated Schumer about the merits of delaying the vote for a day or two past Wednesday while the bill is finalized and the two men had a one-one-one conversation afterward, according to attendees. Manchin’s request for a delay was first reported by CNN.

But Warner and Tester backed Schumer up, the attendees said. And by the time the lunch was over, Manchin appeared swayed by Schumer’s strategy and told reporters afterward that he respects the Democratic leader's commitment to the group’s work.

“Chuck has a strategy he’s working on, and I trust him when he tells me: ‘Hey, we’re going to pass this bill. I want it to pass',” Manchin said. “I believe him.”

After his attempts to establish an independent commission on the Jan. 6 insurrection fell short, Schumer is also trying to reassure reluctant Republicans that he's being as accommodating as can be on the infrastructure bill. He met privately Tuesday with Sinema and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the two lead negotiators on the prospective deal to fund roads, bridges and broadband.

The two convened their group on Tuesday evening to make one last big push before the first vote on advancing the package.

Defending his strategy on Tuesday, Schumer reiterated that “there’s no reason” the Wednesday test vote should fail. He also hinted at frustration with media coverage of his decision, saying that “reporters came over to me. They don’t understand it.”

“The plan that I have is very fair to the bipartisan process,” he told reporters. “We’re moving forward and we hope our Republican friends will decide that they want to move forward as well.”

Sources working on the bipartisan infrastructure talks described a path to recovery once the bill fails as expected on Wednesday, with ongoing drafting and another procedural vote possible next week. But Schumer’s entreaties to all sides of the dynamic are playing better with Democrats than the GOP, which enjoys using him as a foil and needling his leadership.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a longtime sparring partner, said he did not find Schumer’s entreaties “particularly credible.”

“He’s sabotaging the bipartisan bill, believing that that somehow makes it more likely that he’ll be able to get all 50 Democratic senators on the spending and taxing bill,” Cornyn said, referring to a separate $3.5 trillion spending plan Democrats are crafting. A failed cloture vote will be “according to his plan,” Cornyn added of Schumer.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a central member of the bipartisan talks, said Schumer’s motives aren’t “malevolent” as the Democrat eyes a brutal fall agenda of funding the government and avoiding a credit default. “The president wants to get it done. He’s made it very clear he does. I would assume that Leader Schumer wants to be on the same page as the president.”

The moment speaks to the unprecedented level of difficulty Schumer faces in managing a 50-50 Senate. He’s now the majority leader who’s done so for the longest period in U.S. history; the last 50-50 Senate fell apart after fewer than six months, with the late Sen. Jim Jeffords handing Democrats a majority after feuding with former President George W. Bush over economic policy.

There are no signals that Schumer’s majority is in similar jeopardy, given how close he keeps Manchin and other moderates. But he’s unlikely to reach his goal of uniting his members around the $3.5 trillion spending blueprint by Wednesday, with Manchin asserting complete focus right now on the bipartisan effort.

Even so, Democratic negotiators credited the Wednesday deadline with driving Washington toward a result, even if the path to get there isn’t pretty. Sinema said Tuesday she doesn’t “control the floor, so I’m not wasting a second thinking about [Schumer’s] timing. All I can do is help finish the bill.”

“It’s his job to see the big picture, and these are the two most important things we’ll do this year. But we can’t spend the entire year on them,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) of Schumer. “His job is to press for action and not endless negotiation. So I think it’s entirely appropriate he’s keeping the heat on."

Still, a split Senate means it's important for Schumer to keep credibility with Republicans whose votes he'll need later to avoid a debt default and pass the bipartisan deal, if it can be resurrected after Wednesday’s vote. Republicans said a failed vote on Wednesday is more likely to destroy the long-running bipartisan talks than provide catharsis.

“It doesn’t seem to me like it’s encouraging us to get our work done. It seems to me that it’s creating reasons to make [a deal] more difficult to accomplish,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a member of the bipartisan group. “It doesn’t feel right to me."

Schumer hasn’t indicated what steps he’ll take after Wednesday’s expected failed vote, saying only on Tuesday that he hoped Republicans would join Democrats in voting to move forward. Republicans continue to insist the vote to be delayed to allow a successful result early next week.

And as the two parties trade views on Schumer's motivations, some Democratic senators say they see a maturation of the New York Democrat’s approach after four years of watching Minority Leader Mitch McConnell take hard-line positions during his time in power. Schumer’s been majority leader for six months, and his allies say he’s growing into the job.

“He’s thinking he knows how to use the tools,” Warner said. “We’ve watched Leader McConnell use some of the same tactics.”

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