WASHINGTON — It’s been a turbulent year for Chuck Schumer (N.Y.). The top Senate Democrat faced months of skepticism about his tactics and leadership as his party struggled to pass a once-in-a-generation overhaul of climate and health care policy.
But over the weekend, after two near-failures that sowed bitter division and even open warfare among some Democrats, the Senate finally passed the $740 billion Inflation Reduction Act. It’s not everything they wanted, but it’s more than seemed possible just a few weeks ago.
How did Schumer do it?
“I just persist. I don’t take no for an answer. If there’s a dead end, I find another way to go,” Schumer told HuffPost in an interview Tuesday.
The bill sets aside hundreds of billions of dollars to fight climate change, including by incentivizing clean energy technology. It’s the most significant investment the U.S. has ever made to confront climate change and its devastating impacts around the world.
The bill would also enact a change Democrats have sought for more than a decade ― to allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies over the prices of prescription drugs, like the governments in many other high-income countries.
The House is expected to pass the measure and send it to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday. Its passage caps an incredibly productive period for Senate Democrats, who also notched bipartisan wins on veterans care, domestic semiconductor production, and gun safety.
Even Republicans who fiercely opposed the Inflation Reduction Act are giving Democrats praise for how they managed to get it across the finish line in a deeply divided chamber.
“I’ll give the Dems this. With a 50/50 Senate & a historically unpopular president, they passed major (terrible) legislation. Lots of it. They came to do something,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tweeted Monday. “There’s a lesson there for the GOP. If they get back Congress, they better be willing to fight.”
Schumer said the secret to his success is his close coordination with fellow Democrats. He’s known to answer his flip phone — a relic from a bygone era — at all hours of the day and night. Its trademark ringtone can be heard chirping frequently when Schumer is on the Senate floor and in the middle of press conferences.
“Every member has my number and they call me directly, not through staff. I encourage them to tell me what they think. By constant communication we have woven ourselves into a real team,” Schumer said.
That team includes some very different players who wanted very different things in the bill, including moderates like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It’s a math problem Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who had most recently held a 52-seat majority, never had to contend with.
“McConnell prides himself on saying no,” Schumer said. “I pride myself on getting things done. It’s a lot harder in a 50-50 Senate where each member can pull the rug under from the rest,” Schumer said.
Democrats had initially hoped to pass a much broader social policy package on a party-line vote, but couldn’t get Manchin on board with things like paid leave, free community college, affordable housing and child care.
Last summer, Manchin signed off on a framework totaling about $1.5 trillion in a secret agreement with Schumer. But the West Virginia Democrat pulled the plug on that effort six months later, citing rising inflation and the deficit.
After a cooling-off period, Schumer and Manchin revived their talks in May. But Manchin still wasn’t comfortable with going ahead in July, objecting to the climate and tax provisions Democrats had sought. His second rug-pull sparked another round of recriminations from progressives and climate advocates.
“I was really upset,” Schumer said of the breakdown.
But Manchin came back to the table after a weekend of bad press and resumed negotiations with Schumer on the condition that they be kept secret. Their announcement of a deal on a narrower package a few weeks later shocked Washington, where secrets rarely stay secret. The news delighted Democrats and angered Republicans who believed Manchin had driven the final nail in the coffin.
Schumer said Manchin, whom he recruited to run for Senate in 2010, “didn’t want to be regarded as the single person who allowed the bill to blow up.”
Manchin largely wrote the bill, and his touch is evident in its more than 700 pages. The climate provisions are sprinkled with handouts and sweeteners for the oil and gas industry, as well as the coal industry, which is a major supporter of Manchin. Democratic leaders also agreed to take up legislation speeding up approvals for federal projects, including pipelines, in another concession to Manchin in exchange for his support for the bill.
“I told my caucus all along, including the most pro-environmental people, that we’re going to have to swallow some bad stuff to get good stuff,” Schumer said of the climate provisions after the bill passed Sunday.
Buying off votes with special giveaways is old-school legislating, and a tactic Democrats employed in 2009 to pass the Affordable Care Act into law. Several red-state Democrats won concessions in exchange for their support for that bill, including former Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), in a deal that was dubbed by critics as the “Cornhusker Kickback.”
Schumer said the legislative wheeling-and-dealing on the oil and gas provisions, as well as a special tax giveaway for private equity sought by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona), was worth it in order to finally take meaningful steps to address the climate emergency and to show skeptical voters that Democrats can still accomplish big things.
The bill could slash U.S. carbon emissions by 40% or more below 2005 levels by the end of the decade, according to several studies. It’s also expected to create millions of clean energy jobs, lower electricity bills and improve public health.
“I have such a passion. Even when I’m in the dumps, I just keep going. I never stop working,” Schumer told HuffPost.