By Alexander Bolton - 05-02-17 06:02 AM EDT
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) capped off his first 100 days as Senate Democratic leader under President Trump with a big win on spending, signaling how he plans to deal with Republicans in the months ahead.
Schumer and former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted Senate Republicans throughout President Obama's presidency for obstructing his agenda.
But just over three month's into Trump's first term, Schumer's playbook looks similar to the one Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) used against Obama eight years ago.
It's a flashback to 2009: keep the minority unified and use every opportunity to slow down the president's agenda.
Frustrated, Trump has lashed out at Schumer in recent days.
"Senator Schumer is a bad leader. I've known him for a long time. Senator Schumer is a bad leader, not a natural leader at all," Trump told supporters at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., Saturday.
On Sunday, Trump blasted Democrats in a CBS News interview as "extremely obstructionist" and slammed Schumer again on Monday during a sit-down with Fox News.
"If slowing things and pitching a fit is successful, he was very successful," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said of Schumer.
Republicans say he exceeded McConnell by slowing the confirmations of Trump's Cabinet nominees to a crawl. Democrats held three all-night talk-a-thons to protest Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
Schumer also launched the first partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, something McConnell never did.
"They dislike Trump so much that they literally did everything to try and destroy his presidency right off the bat," Hatch said of Schumer and other Democrats.
Schumer's hardball tactics sent a message: he and his colleagues were dead serious about pulling out all the stops to fight Trump. It gave him leverage in the recent spending talks, since Republicans had little doubt Schumer would force a shutdown if they didn't back off their demands.
"We made it clear that if the government shut down it would be on the Republicans' backs," Schumer told reporters at the Capitol Monday. "That became the general consensus and that gave us real leverage even though we were in the minority to get things done."
Fearing a shutdown would delay tax reform and derail any hopes of reviving healthcare reform legislation, Republicans abandoned Trump's request to fund construction of a border wall as well as various riders to loosen environmental and financial regulations.
Schumer was exultant, touting it as "a very good deal for the American people."
He sees the budget as a roadmap for upcoming talks on other major issues.
"I hope this is a metaphor for the future. When Republicans work with us, we can get things done," Schumer said Monday.
Schumer's plan is to keep his Democrats unified in hopes of exploiting divisions within the Republican Party - just as he did by picking off GOP senators who opposed the border wall or who wanted to see more funding for the National Institutes of Health and Pell Grants.
He hopes it will push Trump to reach out to Democrats on tax reform and infrastructure, after a healthcare debate that saw Trump avoid cutting deals with Democrats.
But Republicans say Schumer's opposition likely to do the opposite.
A senior GOP strategist said that after the way Schumer treated Gorsuch, a judge rated well-qualified by the American Bar Association, there's no chance of Democrats working with Trump on tax reform. He said that's all the more reason to overhaul the tax code with a party-line vote under a special budgetary process known as reconciliation, which will enable Republicans to bypass the traditional 60-vote threshold required to beat a filibuster.
Democrats say a key difference between Schumer in 2017 and McConnell in 2009 is that Obama spent his first year in office trying to woo GOP support for the economic stimulus and healthcare reform.
Tax cuts made up 40 percent of the cost of Obama's first stimulus proposal, and Democrats spent almost a year trying to woo Republicans such as former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) to support ObamaCare, they note.
By contrast, centrist red-state Democrats such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) say there has been little serious outreach from the president to date.
Under heavy pressure from the Democratic base, Schumer has dug in against Trump's agenda, defying predictions that he would be a pragmatic dealmaker who couldn't be trusted by liberals.
A week after Trump's surprising victory over Hillary Clinton, The New York Times highlighted what it called the "Senate Democrats' Surprising Strategy: Trying to Align with Trump."
Schumer announced a week after the election that Democrats were "ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Republicans - working with soon-to-be President Trump on issues where we agree" while cautioning he wouldn't be afraid to "go toe-to-toe" against the president when their values clashed.
So far, though, there has been lot more clashing than cooperation. Amazingly, Schumer has kept his caucus unified, even though ten Democratic colleagues face re-election in states Trump carried in November.
The bottom line for Trump is that he has not been able to put much pressure on Democrats facing re-election in states he won by big margins, forcing him to rely on his own party at a time when it's riven by divisions between the leadership and conservative rebels.
"I think Chuck's done a good job," said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who is running for re-election in a state won by 20 points. "The caucus isn't the easiest to work with because you've got all sorts of differences of opinions."
He disputed that Schumer has become too beholden to the liberal base.
"I don't buy that," he said. "Chuck listens to people and I think thus far he has reacted appropriately."
The challenge for the GOP is whether they will be able to inflict enough damage on Democrats by calling them obstructionist to either force more cooperation or win more electoral victories.
Democrats tried for years to paint Senate Republicans as obstructionist, but it didn't save their 60-seat majority in 2009 from becoming a 46-seat minority in 2015.
Some of Schumer's other decisions have been criticized, too.
Republicans say the filibuster of Gorsuch backfired because it resulted in a rules change, stripping Democrats of the power to filibuster a future Trump nominee to the high court when the stakes might be higher or the political environment changed.
But Democrats argue that McConnell would have employed the nuclear option to change the rules even if a liberal seat on the court became open in 2020, the next presidential election year.
"It was the right move because Gorsuch wasn't the right guy for the court," said Tester, who voted to filibuster Gorsuch.
"Either we come out of this with a base motivated, engaged and energized, or one that is deflated," a senior Democratic aide said of the decision to filibuster Gorsuch.
Schumer's and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) choice of former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) to deliver the response to Trump's first address to a join session of Congress elicited mockery from the GOP and grumbling from some liberal sectors like the Huffington Post, which portrayed Beshear's selection as a symbol of the party's struggle to move forward.
A senior Democratic aide acknowledged that Beshear "flubbed" some of his lines, but argued that he was uniquely positioned to highlight the success of ObamaCare in providing health insurance to low-income Americans in red states such as Kentucky.
Republicans also highlight the 13 Obama-era regulations they rolled back under the Congressional Review Act on Schumer's watch. They argue that Schumer has failed to pick off enough Republican votes to defeat the measures, revealing his limited traction with GOP colleagues.
But Democrats say these are minor victories as they only repealed regulations from the last few months of Obama's tenure. Furthermore, they argue that there are several rules that Republicans don't dare challenging for fear of losing.
A Democratic aide noted that Senate Republicans have not acted on resolutions to overturn a Department of Labor regulation designed to promote broader access to workplace retirement savings plans, a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau rule for prepaid credit cards and a Bureau of Land Management Regulation limiting the venting, flaring and leaking of methane from oil and gas operations on public lands.
Schumer says Republicans will need to start working with his caucus, or face more problems with their agenda.
"If on healthcare or if it occurs on the tax bill, they just try to do things on their own, they're not going to be able to accomplish anything," he said.