Schumer treading a rocky path
Posted July 9, 2018 7:30 a.m. EDT
WASHINGTON _ Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer is ready, willing and able to take a scorched-earth approach on the Supreme Court vacancy _ up to a point.
As leader of Senate Democrats for the past year and a half, the 67-year-old Brooklynite already is well-versed in the art of agent provocateur. But his role as opponent-in-chief in the upcoming Senate confirmation battle promises to put him in the spotlight _ or crucible _ as never before.
In a Senate divided 51-49 in the Republicans' favor, Schumer's ability to twist arms is limited. And even if it were not, heavy-handed tactics are not his style.
At a tele-town-hall with Brooklyn voters last week, Schumer confronted a demand that he punish red state Democrats in tight races this November who vote for Trump's expected conservative nominee.
"We don't operate that way," he answered.
A battle is already being waged over who will replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, 81, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988.
Schumer's unwillingness to push fellow Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota is as much a reflection of his sense of collegiality as it is a tactical calculation.
Manchin, Donnelly and Heitkamp were the only Democrats to cross the aisle last year and vote with Republicans to confirm Trump's first Supreme Court pick, Justice Neil Gorsuch. They are among the 10 Democratic senators struggling to win re-election this year in states won by Trump in 2016.
"It's beyond his power," said political scientist James Sieja of St. Lawrence University, referring to Schumer's capacity to corral Democratic votes.
"Red state Democrats could vote for (Trump's) nominee and still lose in November," Sieja said. "If they vote against the nominee, they will lose."
The left wing of the Democratic coalition is howling for Schumer to take the gloves off, suggesting the entirety of his 37-year legacy on Capitol Hill is at stake.
"We need Minority Leader Schumer whipping as hard as he can and as long as he can to keep his caucus in line," said Indivisible Project, a left-leaning advocacy group, in outlining its two-step strategy to defeat Trump's nominee.
Kennedy, who announced his retirement last month, was a swing vote on many of the crucial issues during his 30 years as a Supreme Court justice. Notably, Kennedy sided with the court's liberal wing in defending Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.
If Trump has his way, the replacement for Kennedy will be a potential fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. For this reason, Democrats of all shades _ and many centrist Republicans _ characterize the looming confirmation battle as an epic struggle to prevent challenges to legalized abortion, the overturning of which would likely launch the nation into upheaval.
Schumer is choosing his words carefully, emphasizing that Democrats in the Senate cannot defeat the Trump nominee by themselves.
The best way to defend Roe v. Wade, as well as the 2012 ruling that shielded Obamacare, "is for a bipartisan majority in the Senate to lock arms and reject a Supreme Court nominee who would overturn them," Schumer wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times last week. "It will not happen on its own. It requires the public's focus on these issues, and its pressure on the Senate."
Holding off a Trump nominee will require not only all 49 Democratic votes _ actually 47 plus two independents _ but at least two Republicans as well. Those would most likely be Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, both of whom are pro-choice and concerned over possible overturning of Roe v. Wade. But both voted with their party last year for Gorsuch.
So far, Schumer has been careful to tread lightly with fellow Democrats. Manchin, for one, said Schumer has yet to take off the gloves. "He knows I'm going to do what I got to do for West Virginia," Manchin told The Hill, which circulates on Capitol Hill.
It was Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who sidetracked then-President Barack Obama's selection of federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016.
McConnell insisted the nomination be delayed until after the U.S. electorate picked the next president in 2016 _ a fateful piece of strategy that succeeded in swinging the court from left to right after Trump's victory.
Schumer and other Democrats argue that obstruction of the upcoming nominee amounts to payback for McConnell's tactics in turning the Garland seat into the Gorsuch seat. But that sense of outrage alone may not be enough to blunt Republican momentum.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a liberal already committed to resisting Trump's nominee at all costs, said red state Democrats "understand this is a different vote than the one to replace Scalia. But I can't predict much more than that."