Jan 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Minority Mitch still setting Senate agenda

Illustration of a tiny director's chair with "McCONNELL" written on the back, next to a cropped cut of a giant person in a suit.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Chuck Schumer may be majority leader, yet in many ways, Mitch McConnell is still running the Senate show — and his counterpart is about done with it.

Why it matters: McConnell rolled over Democrats unapologetically, and kept tight control over his fellow Republicans, while in the majority. But he's showing equal skill as minority leader, using political jiujitsu to convert a perceived weakness into strength.

Schumer showed his exasperation while speaking with reporters Monday.

  • "All I can tell you is we are not letting McConnell dictate how the Senate operates. He is minority leader."
  • "There's huge anger in my caucus about what he's doing."
  • Schumer's team says the majority leader is wise to McConnell's approach but won't capitulate to his filibuster demands, and is happy to get President Biden's Cabinet nominees confirmed during their continued negotiations.

The same 50-50 Senate that empowers Schumer through Vice President Kamala Harris' tie-breaking vote also has an inherent thin margin of error. McConnell is exploiting that to ensure Senate business still operates on his terms.

  • Schumer can't tack too far left without losing his Democratic backing, while McConnell has less downside from a defecting Republican.

The recap: Six days after Democrats regained the majority, Schumer has yet to set a clear agenda of how the chamber will operate under the new 50-50 split.

  • He and McConnell are locked in negotiations over a power-sharing accord. McConnell insists any agreement includes clear language stating Democrats will not end the 60-vote legislative filibuster.
  • In the absence of the agreement, committee chairmanships and memberships remain in favor of Republicans.
  • It was McConnell — not Schumer — who laid out the schedule for former President Trump's impeachment trial, demanding it to be pushed to mid-February. Schumer acquiesced, arguing he would use the time to pass President Biden's Cabinet nominations.
  • White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cited McConnell — not Schumer — while discussing those nominees. "I know that our secretary of State is just about to get confirmed, or so Sen. McConnell tells us," she told reporters Friday.
  • Schumer told reporters to "ask McConnell" when they peppered him with questions last week about Janet Yellen's confirmation vote for Treasury secretary.

The big question: A clear test of Schumer's muscle will center on his approach to passing the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill Biden has proposed.

  • Getting his plan through — or any substantial legislation, for that matter — will require a huge level of bipartisanship, and there's little enthusiasm from Republicans for another massive stimulus package.

What we're hearing: Schumer is warming up to the idea of jamming through the stimulus package by way of reconciliation — a budget end-around that would allow for it to pass by a simple 51-vote majority.

  • Even if that's saber-rattling, it may be his only degree of leverage over Republicans unless Schumer reverts to an all-in, partisan approach to lawmaking.
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