Today, the Republican and Democratic factions of the Senate elected leadership for when the new Congress convenes in January. The Republicans reaffirmed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, while the Democrats elected Sen. Charles “Chuck” Schumer of New York as Senate minority leader.
McConnell, the 74-year-old Kentuckian, was elected by affirmation behind a closed-door meeting. Florida Sen. Mark Rubio and Todd Young, the freshman senator from Indiana, formally nominated him. McConnell first became majority leader in 2015 when the GOP took control of the Senate. Prior to that, he was the minority leader for eight years.
Highly respected and immensely popular within his party, McConnell’s confirmation was never in doubt. The shrewd tactician leans toward the conservative, but is known for cutting bipartisan deals on occasion. He infuriated Democrats earlier this year when he refused to let the Senate consider President Barack Obama’s nomination of federal judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court seat left open by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.
McConnell distanced himself somewhat from Trump during the election, although in a quiet manner befitting the refined Southerner. While he called president-elect Donald Trump’s comments in the now infamous Access Hollywood video “repugnant,” he wasn’t as vocal as other prominent Republican leaders, like House Speaker Paul Ryan — who made public appearances and hosted a conference call with House members after the scandal broke. Instead, McConnell spent his time privately counseling members of the Senate, helping them draft statements and staying out of the limelight. When asked to comment on Trump’s performance leading up to the election, McConnell told The Associated Press that he didn’t “have any observations to make about the campaign” and that he didn’t “have anything to add on the presidential race.”
Since the election, McConnell has indicated that he is willing to work with Trump on the president-elect’s agenda. However, McConnell isn’t about to let the incoming president get everything he wants. McConnell has already unilaterally shot down Trump’s ideas on term limits and told the future president that his plans to rebuild the country’s infrastructure “aren’t a priority.”
Trump will face much tougher opposition from the new Senate minority leader. Schumer told reporters today that his party “can’t flinch and can’t ignore” the results of the election.
“We are ready to go toe to toe with Republicans,” the senior New York senator said, although he did promise to work with Republicans — at least on occasion.
“We are ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with Republicans — working with soon-to-be President Trump on issues where we agree.” But on issues where they don’t, the Democrats are ready to fight. One of their most effective tools may be the filibuster. While Republicans have Senate majority, the margin is slim: 52-48. Therefore, getting the required 60 votes necessary to invoke cloture and end a filibuster may be substantially more difficult.
In his new position, Schumer will become the most powerful Democrat in Washington. He was unanimously picked to replace Harry Reid, who retires in January after 30 years. The outgoing statesman personally tapped Schumer for the position last March, calling him “extremely smart.” His only real competition was Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, who promised to step aside for Schumer. Durbin retains his position in the Senate.
Promising to change the system, one of Schumer’s first acts expanded his party’s leadership team. He made the move in an attempt to reach out to disenchanted voters.
“One thing we know is that we heard the American people loud and clear. They felt that the government wasn’t working for them,” he said. In an effort to bridge the divide between the “diverse Obama coalition” and the “blue-collar American in the heartland,” which represent vastly different segments of the Democratic Party, Schumer added three new leadership positions to the conference.
Extending an olive branch to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who lost the Democratic Party nomination to former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Schumer offered Sanders the newly created position of chair of outreach. Additionally, Schumer added Sen. Joe Manchin, of West Virginia, as vice chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin, as conference secretary.
As for other Democratic positions within the Senate, we’ll see some significant transitions come January. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee; Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri becomes the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware shifts to the Committee on Environment and Public Works; and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California takes over the top seat on the Judiciary Committee. In this new position, she’ll be poised to lead the fight against any new Supreme Court nominee Trump puts before the Senate. Another change sees Sen. Patty Murray of Washington taking Schumer’s previous position as the assistant Democratic leader. Finally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has publicly feuded with Trump on Twitter over a number of issues, will become vice chair of the conference.
On the Republican side of the aisle, there was only one leadership change: Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado was named National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman. The rest of McConnell’s team remains unchanged. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas continues as the Senate Republican whip; Sen. John Thune of North Dakota remains the Senate Republican Conference chairman; Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming is still the Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman; and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri stays the Senate Republican Conference vice chairman.
Yesterday House Republicans re-nominated Rep. Paul Ryan for House speaker, with a final vote on Jan. 3, 2017. Meanwhile, House Democrats delayed leadership votes scheduled for tomorrow, citing the need to “sort out their legislative agenda.” Privately, Democrats are questioning the leadership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current House minority leader. She is facing competition from a number of Democrats, including Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio. The leadership vote was moved to Nov. 30.