WASHINGTON — Senator Chuck Schumer huddled in his Capitol office Thursday night awaiting a climactic meeting with Kyrsten Sinema, a critical hold-up on his meticulously negotiated deal on climate change, taxes and health care, when the loud pops and flashes of a powerful thunderstorm shook Washington, causing the lights to flicker.
Mr Schumer and his aides, so close to a landmark legislative achievement to round out a startling streak of wins, looked at each other anxiously, wondering if it was a bad omen. A 50-50 Senate, a pandemic that left Democrats constantly guessing about who might vote, and the sheer difficulty of managing the nearly unwieldy chamber had made them superstitious.
“I’ve been a worrier all my life, but a happy worrier,” said Mr. Schumer, a New York Democrat and Majority Leader.
He needn’t have worried. After a half-hour meeting, Mr. Schumer handed over to Ms. Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, who agreed to lend her support to the legislation in exchange for a few revisions and some relief from the drought in the home state. After a grueling overnight session, the Senate approved the sweeping measure on Sunday, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the casting vote. The House of Representatives would follow later this week.
It was a mind-bending change in fortune. Just weeks earlier, Mr. Schumer, the Democratic agenda, and the party’s chances of retaining its bare Senate majority all seemed in dire shape as the latest sobbing negotiations over the broad-based legislation seemed to succumb for good under the weight of Senator’s resistance. Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia.
Instead, the Democrats not only bagged their biggest prize — the climate and tax law party line — but also wrapped up an extraordinarily productive run for a Congress better known for its paralysis. It included the passing of the first bipartisan gun safety legislation in a generation, massive microchip manufacturing and scientific research to boost U.S. competitiveness with China, and a major veteran health measure.
The string of successes was all the sweeter for Democrats because it had the political advantage of Republicans who made themselves look bad by switching positions and temporarily blocking the bill to help sick veterans in what appeared to be a tantrum over the abrupt Resurrection of the Climate Accord.
“We’ve had an extraordinary six weeks,” Mr. Schumer said in an interview, calling the climate, health and tax measure “the most comprehensive piece of legislation to affect the American people in decades.”
It was far from certain that he could achieve this result. Mr. Schumer, who unlike his predecessors is not known as a master tactician or gifted lawmaker, has long struggled to produce, needing every vote of an ideologically mixed democratic membership. Even his allies wondered if he was too driven by the need to be liked or by his own personal political considerations in fending off a possible primary challenge from the left to be capable of the kind of ruthlessness it would take.
Mr. Schumer said that stamina, not bare knuckles, was the main requirement.
“This is the hardest job I’ve ever had, with a 50-50 Senate, a big agenda, and unyielding Republicans,” said Mr. Schumer. He cited a perseverance instilled in him by his father, who ran a destruction company and died last year, as a motivating factor. “Hold on, hang on. Look at all the pitfalls we’ve encountered to make this happen.”
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The U-turn on Capitol Hill was felt as Democrats allowed themselves to hope that their legislative victories, coupled with a national fight against abortion that they believed would shake the political landscape in their favor, would allow them to retain control of the Senate. And for once, they thought they outsmarted Senator Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican and minority leader who has successfully confused Democrats in the past.
“The mood is buoyant, expectant and truly ecstatic with the progress we’ve made in recent weeks,” said Connecticut Democrat Senator Richard Blumenthal.
Mr. Schumer won the victories without deep involvement from the White House. President Biden — who had campaigned for the presidency, citing his deep experience of negotiating bipartisan deals in the Senate — handed him much of the responsibility for capturing the details. The last negotiations with Mr. Manchin were one on one in almost total secrecy.
Republicans licked their wounds as they watched the Schumer-led Democrats push through legislation that the GOP couldn’t stop under special budget rules. They were not sold on the idea that Democrats had dug themselves out of a political hole with a bill they called the Inflation Reduction Act, as Mr. Biden’s popularity continues to dwindle and the cost of consumer goods rises.
“Highest inflation in 40 years, 9.1 percent, families are in pain, they can’t afford a full tank of gas,” said Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, the third Republican in the Senate. “The end of the month had just come and they ran out of money before they ran out of month.”
But the Democrats pointed to the approval of the long-sought Medicare authority to negotiate lower drug prices as something that would appeal to voters, along with the general feeling that the Democrats were finally getting things done on Capitol Hill. Relishing the prospect of reminding voters that Republicans had voted against the drug pricing measure, they forced Democrats to withdraw a proposal that would have capped the monthly cost of insulin for private insurers to $35.
They also pointed to the climate change provisions as a huge leap forward, although not as far as the Democrats had initially hoped to achieve before Mr Manchin forced the party to scale back its goals.
“It’s a landmark climate bill, and it wasn’t on the scoreboard a month ago,” said Massachusetts Democrat Senator Edward J. Markey, a leader on climate issues. “Senator Schumer, who works with Manchin, has succeeded in extracting the key climate determinations we need. It’s not all we wanted, but it was what we needed to start this effort to lead the rest of the world.”
Democrats also got some help from Republicans. Not only did the Veterans Act blunder play into their hands, but Democrats said a threat by Mr. McConnell to freeze the microchip account if Democrats continue with the party climate and tax law, backfired by motivating Mr. Manchin to compromise after to strive.
“Anytime you threaten a bill that you support because you can’t get anywhere else, you’re in a bad position,” Maryland Democrat Senator Chris Van Hollen said. “It just looks bad. It was so grossly political.”
While being hammered from the left, Mr. McConnell was also struck from the right for being too accommodating to Democrats on bills such as the microchip measure and the gun measure. But Mr. McConnell also has his eye on the midterm elections, and he knows that Republicans need suburban voters who may be knocked out by hasty obstruction.
“Just because you have a closely divided government doesn’t mean you’re not doing anything,” McConnell told Fox News last week. “Just because there is a Democrat in the White House, I don’t think Republicans should be allowed to do anything good for the country in the meantime.”
That approach has bolstered Democrats at a crucial time, the heart of the campaign season.
“There is a definite change in momentum,” said Senator Gary Peters, a Michigan Democrat and the head of the Senate campaign branch. “I feel like we’re in a good place. Here we go into August with Labor Day, and you look where the numbers are, and our candidates are all doing really well in a tough environment.”
After the recess, Mr. Schumer and fellow Democrats plan to push through their success by scheduling politically charged votes on gay marriage, oil prices and other issues they think can show their strengths and get Republicans on the ground. bring.
But even when he was about to put in an important performance, Mr. Schumer wasn’t taking any chances. When the leader of an environmental advocacy group announced him on Thursday as a hero after an event outside the Capitol, Mr. Schumer warned him, “Not yet, not yet.”
Mr Schumer said the outcome highlighted a key difference between him and Mr McConnell, who was known more for his blockades and cutthroat legislation than passing bills.
“He brags about the graveyard,” Mr. Schumer said. “I’d like to be proud of the achievements, of getting things done — not not getting things done.”