By Alexander Bolton - 02-14-17 06:00 AM EST
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is trying to keep the peace in the Senate Democratic Caucus, as Sen. Bernie Sanders's (I-Vt.) aggressive effort to push the party left is giving some colleagues heartburn.
The Senate minority leader convened a meeting last month between Sanders, a liberal stalwart, and a group of Democrats Sanders criticized for voting against an amendment he co-wrote to lower the cost of prescription drugs by allowing their importation from Canada.
One lawmaker described the atmosphere in the room as "frustrated."
Sanders's colleagues complained about an interview he gave to USA Today, a newspaper with the nation's third-highest circulation, in which he said some Democrats lacked "guts" because they were unwilling to stand up to the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, one of the most influential associations in the nation's capital.
He said it was "disappointing" that 13 Senate Democrats didn't "stand up to powerful special interests like the pharmaceutical industry." His public comments were especially offensive because Schumer tapped Sanders to serve on his leadership team in November, appointing him to serve as chairman of outreach.
Reaching out to rile up activists against fellow Democratic senators, however, is not what the leader had in mind.
"You cannot do that if you're in the leadership," said one senator who did not approve of Sanders's tactics and requested anonymity to speak frankly.
Democrats who voted against the amendment said it would not have imposed adequate safety standards for imported drugs. The group of 13 Democrats included Joe Donnelly (Ind.), Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), Jon Tester (Mont.) and Mark Warner (Va.).
Meanwhile, a dozen Republicans backed Sanders's measure, including Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas), Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and John McCain (Ariz.).
Sanders told colleagues at the meeting that he did not intend to inflict any political damage but declined to apologize for his policy positions, according to a source familiar with the meeting.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker (D), who hails from a state that includes many drug companies, suffered the biggest backlash. That immediately prompted speculation that Sanders and the amendment's lead co-sponsor, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), might have been motivated by future presidential political considerations.
Booker and Klobuchar are viewed as two possible presidential candidates in 2020, and Sanders, who is 75 years old, hasn't ruled out another run after losing the 2016 nomination to Hillary Clinton.
Democratic sources say Schumer convened the meeting not only to salve rankled feelings but also to send a message to the Vermont senator: Play nice with others.
Sanders declined to comment on the meeting when asked about it by The Hill but noted that he is working with colleagues on new legislation intended to reduce drug costs, and he plans to introduce it soon. However, sources say he seemed chastened afterward. One Democratic senator said Sanders kept relatively quiet at the next two caucus meetings, where he is usually a voluble presence.
Democratic aides say Sanders is trying to fit into his new role as a powerful influence on Capitol Hill who has the ability to mobilize millions of supporters of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Schumer was careful not to create the impression that Democrats were ganging up on Sanders. He invited fellow liberal Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to sit in on the session, even though Merkley really had no part in the tiff.
The situation was made more awkward by the fact that Sanders is not a member of the Democratic Party, even though he caucuses with Democratic senators.
Schumer has had to walk a fine line this year, as Democrats are running for reelection in 10 states that President Trump carried in last year's election - five of them by double digits.
Schumer wants to give lawmakers in those states flexibility to vote their conscience without upsetting the party's liberal base, which wants to see Democrats in Washington fight Trump over just about everything.
There are early signs that liberal activists are prepared to pummel lawmakers who cooperate with Trump and that those who do could face primary challenges. Protesters drowned out liberal Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) at a town hall meeting two weeks ago, yelling "Just say no!" and "Obstruct!" after he voted to confirm Mike Pompeo, Trump's pick for CIA director, The Associated Press reported.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is beloved by the party's base, has even taken some heat for supporting Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
Liberal filmmaker and activist Michael Moore warned this month that Democrats who vote for Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, will likely face a "true progressive" primary challenger in the future. This has created a climate of anxiety in the Democratic caucus as some fear a wrong vote on Trump's agenda could spur candidates to challenge them from the left in the midterms.
The key to avoiding internecine warfare is to keep Sanders, along with other prominent liberals such as Warren, happy - or at least persuade him not to attack Democrats as Republicans-lite, Senate Democratic sources say.
Schumer has adopted stronger rhetoric since the day after Trump's Election Day victory, when he was talking about finding common ground with the incoming president.
The Democratic leader has also embraced Sanders's calls to hold rallies around the country protesting the repeal of ObamaCare.
Schumer helped Sanders organize pro-ObamaCare rallies around the nation on Jan. 15, which a senior Democratic aide touted as a major success. On Saturday, the two called for another round of events nationwide.
One Democratic aide said there's a feeling, however, that Sanders is roping Democrats into sponsoring legislation and attending events that may not be at the top of their priority lists. While polls show approval for ObamaCare increasing, holding a public rally to tout the controversial law may not make the best politics at this time.
Sanders argues that if Democrats take a strong stand behind proposals that help the working class, the politics will work out favorably.
But playing a little hardball with colleagues may help get Sanders what he wants. Booker is working with him on the new legislation to reduce drug costs by allowing for importation.