In a Trump Era, Schumer Declares, Democrats Are ‘the Barrier’

In a Trump Era, Schumer Declares, Democrats Are ‘the Barrier’

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Senator Chuck Schumer said some issues, like rolling back bank reform, were nonstarters.

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Al Drago/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Senator Chuck Schumer of New York wasn’t planning on being leader of the Senate minority — and by extension the Democratic opposition — as the Trump era dawns in the nation’s capital.

“Do I regret what happened? Yes,” said Mr. Schumer, who was hoping to be President Hillary Clinton’s right hand as Senate majority leader before both he and Mrs. Clinton came up short of their Election Day goals. “Late moments at night, do I think what could have been? Yes.”

“But I am fully occupied with the job at hand,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview in his Senate office on Friday, just a few days after being formally chosen by his colleagues to succeed his mentor, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, as leader of the Senate Democrats.

That job, in Mr. Schumer’s view, is to serve as the bulwark against a unified Republican government led by his former campaign donor, President-elect Donald J. Trump; to use the power of the Senate minority to try to force compromise when possible; and to stand in the way of Republicans when necessary.

“We are the barrier,” said Mr. Schumer, noting that the rules of the Senate — at least as they currently exist — give Democrats there much more power than their House counterparts to hold the line against Republican policies they oppose.

“If he is going to agree on issues like trade and transportation infrastructure in a very real way with us, we have an obligation to pursue it,” Mr. Schumer said about Mr. Trump, who quickly reached out to Mr. Schumer by phone after his presidential victory.

“But at the same time, we have an obligation to oppose him on all the places where he tramples on our values, travels with racism or just dismantles things because the right wing tells him to do so. That is where we are at.”

It is a delicate balance. And Mr. Schumer’s talk of cutting deals with Mr. Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and majority leader, has already alarmed some Democrats who want no cooperation whatsoever with Mr. Trump or the Senate Republicans who sat on President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick B. Garland.

“It would be a dereliction of our responsibility if we didn’t try,” said Mr. Schumer, who munched casually on a frozen Three Musketeers bar as he laid out his vision. “As long as we don’t sell out, we have an obligation to the millions of Americans who are struggling.”

Those blue-collar Americans are at the center of Mr. Schumer’s emerging strategy. He believes that Mr. Trump won by appealing to the middle of America with what was essentially a Democratic economic message on trade and job creation. He is convinced he can leverage that with the new president.

“We are saying, ‘Mr. President you have two choices: Work with us and you will have to alienate your Republican colleagues, or break your promises to blue-collar America,’” he said.

“I believe that blue-collar America voted for Trump mainly because of Democratic issues like trade, not for Republican issues like tax cuts for the wealthy.”

Mr. Schumer says, however, that any legislation that can entice Democrats will have to be substantial and not be used to chip away at other priorities, or they will not hesitate to oppose it.

For instance, he noted that he had quickly issued a statement skeptical of the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican and occasional Senate gym workout companion, for attorney general, and would be giving all nominees thorough scrutiny.

And he said some issues were simply nonstarters, such as reversing Wall Street and banking reforms enacted after the 2008 economic collapse.

“When it comes to repealing any of Dodd-Frank, as they say in Brooklyn, fuggedaboutit,” said the Brooklyn-born Mr. Schumer, who also said Democrats would not cooperate in any way with overturning the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats did pick up two seats with wins in Illinois and New Hampshire, narrowing the Republican majority and making it that much more difficult for Mr. McConnell to round up the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters, or perhaps even muster a simple majority.

“Even though we didn’t get the majority, those two votes will be invaluable in stopping Republicans from doing bad, bad things,” Mr. Schumer said.

Mr. Schumer does not believe Republicans will be eager to eliminate the ability to mount filibusters against legislation, preserving a chief minority weapon.

He hopes that any Supreme Court nominee can win bipartisan support, but if Republicans threaten to eliminate the ability to filibuster high-court picks, he has an argument ready.

“I said to McConnell, you don’t come before this with clean hands because of what you did with Merrick Garland, who didn’t even get a hearing and who was clearly a mainstream candidate,” Mr. Schumer said.

After an increasingly strained relationship between Mr. McConnell and Mr. Reid, Mr. Schumer believes he can negotiate with the top Republican.

“McConnell wants to make things work and I want to make things work,” he said. “While we will certainly both stand for our principles and each side will respect the other, we can get a lot more done than has been done in the past.”

But it will definitely be a challenge. And it was not the one Mr. Schumer had hoped to face.

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