As Congress returns after its two-week Easter recess, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the presumptive heir to Democrat Minority Leader Harry Reid, will begin maneuvering to reshuffle his caucus’ leadership. This unprecedentedly long transition period for Senate Democrats will play out furiously far below the national headlines.
Sen. Reid’s announcement last month that he would retire at the end of his term sets up a leadership change for Senate Democrats that won’t officially occur for almost two years. The earliness of Reid’s announcement is almost as odd as the circumstances surrounding his New Year’s injury that broke several ribs and rendered his right eye useless.
At the very least, Reid’s announcement will loosen the notorious hold he exerted over the caucus, just as debates over the budget, debt ceiling, Iran sanctions and immigration heat up. Schumer will likely exert more control over the caucus during these fights as he transitions to be Reid’s successor.
Schumer’s assumption of greater control in the caucus will come while his colleagues wonder about their positions in the next Congress. When Reid tapped Schumer as his successor, he reached past Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who is currently second in Democrat leadership. By passing over Durbin, Reid has set in motion a possible reshuffling of the entire Democrat caucus.
Durbin was the obvious loser in Reid’s early moves. Durbin’s office immediately stated publicly that Schumer had promised to support Durbin to remain as Whip. Schumer’s office flatly denied that, prompting a unique spat in the press.
The two ambitious Senators had long been on a collision course, despite public assertions of friendship. Years ago, operatives very close to Sen. Schumer tried to feed this columnist damaging information about Durbin’s then-undisclosed diagnosis with pancreatic cancer.
This columnist also got a glimpse of how thin-skinned Sen. Durbin’s office can be. About two years ago, senior staff in Durbin’s office made a false report with the Capitol Police about me. An open fight between these two offices would be a political treat.
Beyond Schumer and Durbin, a host of Democrat Senators are eager to move up a leadership ladder than has been largely stagnant the past several years. Freshman Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a darling of the hard-left, will expect a higher profile in the new Congress.
After Reid, the only Democrat seat that’s vulnerable next year, at this time, is the one held by Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet. Those Senators not retiring will be expecting to return after next year and will be positioning for a move up the ladder. There are only so many plum leadership positions and filling any of these can set off movements in lower slots.
For example, Politico reports that Sen. Durbin may be moved out of leadership by being given the ranking position on the Appropriations Committee. That move, however, would run up against other Democrats with more seniority on the panel who are jockeying for the gavel.
Schumer will also have to keep an eye on the 2018 elections, when several Democrats from competitive states will be up for reelection. Schumer has been adroit in the past about balancing the ideological wings of the caucus. This balancing could be challenging, as those on the left of the caucus generally have more seniority.
Of course all of these possible machinations gloss over one huge variable: Sen. Schumer is up for reelection next year. He is obviously the overwhelming favorite to win in deep-blue New York state. As we watch him measure the drapes for the Minority Leader’s office, though, shouldn’t we at least pretend that elections are real things and voters have the ultimate say in these matters.