The Senate passage of the American Rescue Plan Act is in the books, with both Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema voting for the final bill 50-49, as Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan was out of town.
Chuck Schumer put it bluntly to Joe Manchin: If you side with Republicans, you could jeopardize everything.
The West Virginia senator was delaying consideration of President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan as he mulled whether to back a GOP bid to shave more than a month off the bill's $300 in extra weekly unemployment benefits. Democrats thought they already had corralled Manchin for their more generous proposal.
“We had what we thought was an agreement. But then Joe Manchin looked at it and was unsure,” Schumer explained in an interview as he recalled Friday’s hectic rush to rewrite the massive Covid aid bill. “If Manchin would have approved the [GOP] amendment, the bill probably couldn't have passed the House. And I told him that. And he understood that.”
Manchin gave Schumer the 50th vote on Saturday afternoon, sending one of the largest emergency spending bills in American history on a glide path to Biden’s desk sometime next week. Despite the tension and GOP jeers sparked by Friday's delay, the 50-49 Senate vote was a crucial victory for the New York Democrat. Schumer has graduated from four years commanding the Senate minority against Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump to the successful leadership of a motley but mostly cohesive majority.
Passage of the Covid aid bill validated an argument Schumer has made for more years now, that Democrats erred by trying to bring Republicans on board for a big relief plan during the last economic crisis in 2009. This time around, Republicans weren’t “even in the ballpark” when they offered a $600 billion spending bill as a compromise, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).
So instead of searching for bipartisan support and potentially watering down a historic bill that beefs up pensions, health care and crucial unemployment benefits, Schumer rolled the dice on total party unity — and succeeded.
“If anyone thought it was going to be just a smooth path without any bumps in the road, they don't know how big and important this legislation is and how diverse our caucus is," Schumer said Saturday.
Schumer said he never doubted the package would pass. But its course was not pretty. At times Republicans insisted Biden had to lean heavily on Manchin to stay in the fold (they talked once) and that the Senate would have to recess for Democrats to reorganize after Friday's impasse. Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) even predicted Democrats might have to swallow the Republican plan on unemployment benefits.
What did happen were multiple renegotiations between Schumer and his moderates, who forced three changes just this week to the House-passed bill. The Senate's version phases out stimulus checks to some middle-class earners and shifts around the unemployment benefits. Before the final vote, the chamber stalled out several times — including on Friday for what is now the longest vote in modern Senate history.
“This last 24 hours was really chaotic. If this was the first big test, I don’t think he … crushed it. It was a very undisciplined, unorganized process,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) of Schumer.
Yet Democrats argue that the public won't remember Friday's Manchin-infused delay, the partisan vote total or the bumpy process. They will remember that Schumer got Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Manchin to hang together for an economic relief bill that many in the party believe is the most progressive legislation in decades.
“Schumer gets a lot of credit,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who said Saturday was his best day as a senator in his 14-year career. “Democrats realized it doesn’t matter how the Senate lines up. What matters is to deliver what the public wants.”
Throughout the process, Schumer stayed in close contact with Biden, often talking to the president multiple times a day or to White House chief of staff Ron Klain. And 20 minutes after the rescue package passed the Senate, Biden called the majority leader personally to thank him.
After the call, Schumer appeared in as good a mood as he’s been in since thwarting Obamacare’s repeal during the Trump administration. In the interview, he propped his shoe-less feet up on an ottoman as he parried questions. Biden showered praise on him later: "When the country needed you most, Chuck, you led."
And while Schumer may not have had doubts, I certainly did. I've been hard on Schumer over the years and he has dropped the ball time and again. But not this time. This time, he came through.