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What To Expect From Sen. Chuck Schumer As Majority Leader

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to stay on the subject of politics and policy for a few more minutes by continuing our look at the people setting the priorities in the new Senate. Recently, we took a look at Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, who led the Senate's Republican majority for years and was a key player in enacting the former president's agenda, pushing through tax cuts and filling the federal courts with like-minded judges. Today, we want to hear about the new majority leader, New York Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. Schumer gained control of the Senate this January after a pair of upset wins in the Georgia runoffs handed the Democrats a slim majority in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. It was a big moment for Schumer, who's had his sights set on the position for years after falling short in 2016.

To help us understand how Senator Schumer might operate as majority leader, we reached out to Alex Bolton, senior reporter at The Hill. Alex has covered Schumer for years and wrote about his new position in a piece for The Hill last month. And he's with us now to tell us more. Alex Bolton, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

ALEX BOLTON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's just start at the beginning. Senator Schumer has been in government a long time. He was elected to Congress in 1980 when he was 29. He went to the Senate in 1998. He served in the New York Assembly before that. How did he rise up to the position of Senate majority leader? Were there any key turning points?

BOLTON: Where he broke through was in the - 2005, 2006, when he became chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. In fact, he was even looking at possibly running for governor of New York in 2006 because the Democrats were mired in the minority. The Democratic leader at the time, Harry Reid, said, hey, please do this, and I'll give you some enticement. Put him on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which, of course, is very important to New York and its financial services.

Schumer stayed on and did such a good job that Reid begged him to stay on for another term. In that 2006 election cycle, Schumer raised a ton of money. He - the DSCC saw its contributions from Wall Street increase by 50%, and they picked up six seats that cycle. Then the following cycle, 2008, part of the Barack Obama wave, Senate Democrats picked up eight seats. So people thought that Schumer was walking on water. He was a magician. He was the genius.

MARTIN: In your article, you mentioned that - and you just told us here - that Schumer was a very effective fundraiser, in part because he was very effective at fundraising with Wall Street. And he was known as the champion of Wall Street early in his career, but that's not where the Democratic caucus seems to be now. How would you describe Schumer's political philosophy overall?

BOLTON: Well, Schumer is shifting left because he's leader of a party that's shifting left. And there was a key moment just this past week where Schumer did a press conference with Senator Elizabeth Warren putting pressure on the Biden administration, on President Biden, to administratively cancel up to $50,000 worth of student debt for every federal student loan borrower. That's a pretty radical position in the Congress. And there are a lot of Democrats who still aren't entirely comfortable with it. But Schumer is up for reelection in 2022, and, you know, he's not taking any chances. He probably won't get a primary challenge. But Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, she hasn't ruled out a primary challenge to Schumer. So Schumer is not letting it - there be any daylight on his left flank.

MARTIN: You can see that he's got a lot of pressure from the left. I mean, there were demonstrations at his house asking - you know, basically telling him to, you know, hold the line against the Republicans. This was kind of early in the Trump era because he and former President Trump, you know, obviously knew each other from New York circles and so forth. You know, on the other hand, you know, he - I think that he's attributed his own success in politics to kind of keeping his finger on the pulse of, you know, the middle class. He's kind of put his finger on, you know, bread-and-butter issues like - college tuition was one of his issues earlier in his career - right? - you know, tax credits for college tuition. But it seems as though, you know, the left wants more. And it is a 50-50 Senate. It's a - so I'm just wondering, do you have a sense of how he feels he's going to thread that needle?

BOLTON: Well, I think he's working it out. Schumer told The New York Times immediately after the 2016 election that if Trump is going to agree on issues like trade, transportation, infrastructure in a very real way, then we as Democrats have an obligation to pursue it. There was pushback on that. And then Schumer later told - about a month later told CNN, look; the only way we're going to work with Trump is if he moves completely in our direction and abandons his Republican colleagues. So I think he very quickly realized that his base and his party and Democratic activists had zero interest in working in - with Trump and wanted him out of office. And that was the top priority.

MARTIN: And what is his North Star? Like, why do you think he's in public life to begin with? I notice that, you know, profiles of him often talk about he's ambitious. They say the same thing about Mitch McConnell. He's ambitious, he's ambitious. But with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, people keep saying he just wants power. And I always ask, power to what end? So Chuck Schumer is ambitious, but ambitious to what end?

BOLTON: Well, you know, I mean, my personal opinion is I think, you know, he thinks about his own parents. He thinks about his dad, who, you know, who he has referenced, you know, owned, as Schumer calls it, a junky little exterminator business in Brooklyn growing up. And, you know, I think he's working to make a better life for him and other Americans, to make sure that there's opportunity for people.

So I think - you know, I think he likes the esteem, the honors of being the leader - the first, you know, New Yorker Senate majority leader, the first Jewish Senate majority leader. You know, he's making history. There's a lot of, I think, personal gratification for him. But also, you know, he's someone who I think, you know, very much looks out for his constituents. And I think, you know, his personal ambition becomes - has become intertwined with his ambition to, you know, give Americans a better life. And I think ultimately, it's clear to me and others that, you know, Schumer loves politics because he believes in the promise of politics, which is to change the country for the better through democracy, voting, persuasion, argument.

MARTIN: That was Alex Bolton, senior reporter at The Hill, telling us about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Alex Bolton, thank you so much.

BOLTON: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL MICHELS AFFAIR'S "THIS SONG'S FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.