Marco Rubio is front and center in the ongoing debate over immigration reform. That makes sense, given his background as the son of Cuban immigrants, his rising-star status within the Republican party, and his not-so-secret aspirations for 2016. Many have argued that the fate of the current reform effort lies in his hands.
Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, the Democratic ringleader of the so-called Gang of Eight, has received far less scrutiny for his role in the talks. A career politician known for his ubiquitous media presence and acute partisanship, Schumer has some Republicans wondering if anything good can come of the gang’s efforts.
In the eyes of many GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Schumer has earned his reputation as a cutthroat partisan hack. “Just look at the Senate over the past two years,” a GOP aide tells National Review Online. “He has basically been using the Senate as a platform for Democratic campaign commercials.”
A number of GOP aides cite Schumer’s involvement as a primary reason that they remain skeptical about the prospects for immigration reform. Some have expressed concern that Rubio, a rising star in the Republican party, walked into a trap the moment he agreed to join Schumer’s gang. Schumer may be less interested in compromise, they suggest, than in deliberately designing legislation that conservatives would be unable to support; this tactic would force Rubio to back out and thereby create a divisive campaign issue for Democrats to run on in 2014 and 2016. “He’ll do whatever he can to characterize us as extreme, or racist, the usual,” says a Republican Senate aide. “It’s just another thing they could use to beat our guys over the head with.”
A former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), Schumer has assumed an increasingly prominent role since he took over the Senate Democrats’ political-messaging operation in 2011. He has been the driving force behind his party’s coordinated, poll-tested campaign to vilify Republicans over the past two years. Reporters once overheard the message maven instruct his Democratic colleagues on how to attack Republicans; moments before a scheduled conference call in March 2011, and apparently unaware that reporters were already listening, Schumer summarized his battle strategy. “I always use the word ‘extreme,’” he said. “That is what the caucus instructed me to use this week.” That comment, a Republican aide remarks, “tells you all you need to know about Chuck Schumer.”
Under Schumer’s guidance, Senate Democrats have mercilessly attacked House Republicans and the budgets authored by Paul Ryan for trying to “end Medicare.” At the same time, as a way of avoiding any political backlash, they steadfastly refused to produce a budget of their own, although the law requires them to do so. Schumer tends to launch his attacks at the “Tea Party” in particular, often noting that House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) is a “good man” who is simply being held “hostage” by the “extreme” members of his own party.
In March 2012, Politico highlighted Schumer’s efforts “to portray Republicans as anti-women, anti-Latino, and anti-middle class” by forcing votes on politically charged items such as the “Buffett Rule” (a proposed tax on millionaires) and the Violence Against Women Act, neither a which stood a chance of becoming law. Schumer’s “plan for painting Republicans as anti-immigrant” was to call the author of Arizona’s controversial immigration law to testify before the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, which he chairs. “There’s good reason to be skeptical of Schumer’s motives,” says the GOP aide. “He’s made clear over the course of his career that his instincts are to go for the jugular at all times and not give a sh** about policy.”
In July 2012, Schumer, a longtime ally of Wall Street and the hedge-fund industry, dropped his personal objection to raising tax rates on income above $250,000 (he prefers a $1 million threshold). For explicitly political reasons, he agreed to fall in line with Obama’s position, arguing that “party unity” and being a “team player for the president” were preferable to good policy.
Over the course of his more than 30-year career in national politics, Schumer has given Republicans ample reason to mistrust his intentions. As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the George W. Bush administration, he led the charge to overturn long-standing precedent when he sought to delay or block the president’s judicial nominations; he proved adept at introducing politics into what had been a relatively nonpartisan tradition of confirming judges. As DSCC chair in 2008, after lawmakers had hammered out a bipartisan agreement on TARP legislation, Schumer immediately ran ads attacking GOP senators for supporting the measure. His Republican colleagues were not pleased.
With respect to immigration reform in particular, Republicans recall the pivotal role that then-congressman Schumer played in crafting the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA), which one aide describes as “amnesty without enforcement.” Additionally, despite voting for legislation that same year that would have required illegal immigrants to pay up to three years of “back taxes” after IRCA became law, Schumer wrote a letter urging the Treasury Department to “immediately” exempt newly legalized residents from that requirement — an objective he achieved with the passage of subsequent tax legislation in 1988.
Schumer recently angered conservatives, who favor an “enforcement first” approach to immigration reform, by announcing over the weekend that the Gang of Eight has a “substantive agreement on all the major pieces” of a forthcoming legislative proposal. “We’ve come to a basic agreement, which is that first, people will be legalized,” Schumer said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Then, we will make sure the border is secure.”
Some GOP aides have expressed concern that Schumer’s staff, nearly three times the size of Rubio’s, might have the wherewithal — especially given Schumer’s role in party leadership and as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration — to sneak Democratic-friendly language into final legislation. “Schumer’s staff are sophisticated, veteran, wily, and have historically drafted bills that suit their needs,” says a conservative GOP aide. “When this immigration bill gets written, something tells me it’s not going to live up to what the Gang has publicly promised.”
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, says Schumer’s policy staffers, many of whom have ties to influential liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress, have probably prepared myriad “loopholes, escape hatches, and land mines that Rubio’s people are completely unaware of,” particularly with respect to immigration enforcement. Others insist that Rubio is fully aware of whom he is dealing with. “He’s not naive,” says a senior GOP aide. “He’s aware that Schumer has this reputation, and he knows what Schumer is capable of.”
Some Republicans think that Schumer’s immigration-reform efforts are motivated less by anti-Republican animus than by a desire to forge a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker. He is widely believed to be positioning himself to succeed Harry Reid as Senate majority leader, but he may face a challenge from Senator Patty Murray (D., Wash.), a skilled politician who offers a sharp contrast to Schumer: She does not come across as overly partisan or self-involved. Given Schumer’s aggressive efforts to manipulate media coverage, headlines such as “Chuck Schumer plays role of deal-maker,” from a February story in Politico, are no accident, Republicans suggest, and offer insight into his future ambitions.
That doesn’t mean that Schumer will go out of his way to make a deal, or that he won’t jump at the chance to demagogue the GOP on immigration, aides say. But a new emphasis on bipartisanship is simply something to assess as the immigration debate unfolds. “Schumer’s challenge is to convince people that the last 40 years of his career don’t matter,” says a Republican aide. “The burden is on him to prove that he’s not what everyone knows him to be — a partisan snake.”
— Andrew Stiles is a political reporter for National Review.