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Mitch McConnell Is Already Running Circles Around Chuck Schumer in the Senate

Once again, the Democrats find themselves outflanked and tangled in their own wire.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on January 21, 2021.

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s protagonist Scout describes a Christmas Day spent with her least favorite cousin: “Talking to Francis gave me the sensation of settling slowly to the bottom of the ocean.”

This is how I have long felt about Sen. Chuck Schumer, and the week’s antics have again validated my sense that the man is and has long been chum in Mitch McConnell’s shark tank. It is barely Tuesday, and already Schumer couldn’t make a breakfast order without losing control of the narrative, and his caucus.

That’s all this setting of the rules thing was: A breakfast order, the first legislative meal of the Senate session to set the rules for the remainder of the term. McConnell got up with Schumer and demanded — from his minority position — that Democrats promise not to do away with the filibuster, a relic of the Jim Crow era that has been widely abused by Republicans since 2009.

At first, McConnell looked like some grabby brat making exorbitant requests from the kid’s table. Schumer threw the demand back in McConnell’s face, and for a bit, everything stopped. “Without the deal in place,” reported The Washington Post, “Senate committees remained frozen from the previous Congress, where Republicans held a majority.”

“Mitch McConnell will not dictate to the Senate what we should do and how we should proceed,” Schumer said on Sunday. “McConnell is no longer the majority leader.” It all sounded formidable enough.

And then, like an entirely predictable thunderclap from a dark and stormy sky, Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — Democrats both — publicly repeated their unequivocal opposition to ending the filibuster. Democratic Sen. John Tester chirped his agreement not long after, though he left the door open to change his mind if McConnell again turned the filibuster into an impenetrable wall.

With that, Schumer’s whole stand collapsed around him. It was no secret that these three senators did not support ending the filibuster. Did Schumer forget this when he squared off with McConnell? In any event, having no more need to extract promises of filibuster protections because the Democrats took care of that by themselves, McConnell “graciously” dropped his demand and let the rules process do its thing.

McConnell emerged from this pre-season crunch looking like an adept diplomat navigating hard waters, a conciliator who drops demands and allows the process to work. Schumer, by contrast, tried to play a busted straight apparently without knowing what cards he was holding: He did not have the votes to back up his threat to dissolve the filibuster. McConnell knew that, but the new Senate Majority Leader must have misplaced those notes.

This wasn’t checkers v. chess, or bringing a knife to a gun fight. This was Schumer bringing his simpering grin to a thermonuclear war, and once again, congressional Democrats find themselves outflanked and tangled in their own wire. A strong beginning from the Biden White House now seems like it happened months ago.

“Mr. Schumer said little of his strategy for rebuffing Mr. McConnell, other than calling his demand unacceptable,” reported The New York Times. “The new majority leader seemed to let Democrats and Mr. Biden, a former longtime senator who has been reluctant to overturn the filibuster, simmer over Republican tactics.”

Leadership, baby. I can smell it from here.

One of the strangest elements of this whole fiasco was the reaction last night by some of the network news stations. MSNBC, specifically, went with the BREAKING NEWS banner, the music and the wild lights with chyron headlines like McCONNELL DEFEATED and McCONNELL BACKS DOWN. It was breathlessly reported that all this had been a huge setback for the minority leader, a stinging defeat.

Ah, well now, no. McConnell managed to get Schumer to promise more than he could deliver, watched as members of Schumer’s own caucus cut the legs out from under him, and then gracefully retreated with a laurel on his head for being so willing to compromise. McConnell owned the narrative of this exchange from the beginning, and if he started out seeming like he was overreaching, he ended by leaving a sense of, “Well, someone has to know how to do this job.” Shrug, wink, see you next time.

“Making a mockery of yourself empowers foes and demoralizes supporters,” Josh Marshall wrote for Talking Points Memo before the final deal was struck. “Politics isn’t all policy literalism and parliamentary procedure. To do it right you frequently have to see beyond those critical but thin elements. Having the old majority’s senators still running the committees weeks after the new Congress kicked off is making a mockery of yourself. Or rather it is allowing Mitch McConnell to make a mockery of the new majority.”

In the wake of Donald Trump, the Republican Party is shattered and demoralized in a way not seen since the Barry Goldwater election debacle of 1964. Yes, the majorities enjoyed by Senate and House Democrats are razor thin, but they are there. More to the point, the fact that the voters have so thoroughly repudiated the GOP that Democrats now control the White House and Congress is a point of rhetorical strength all by itself. Who does Mitch think he is by using the filibuster to preserve the filibuster and block Senate Democrats from asserting their fairly won majority control?

I’ll tell you who Mitch thinks he is: one of the smartest, most utterly ruthless and most tactically minded people in that chamber, regardless of his minority status. He thinks that, and he is right. Until Chuck Schumer and his disorganized caucus figure out how to deal with Mitch McConnell, scenes like this are going to play out with weekly regularity, and then it will be 2022, and the GOP will blame Democrats for nothing getting done, and then they will pick up seats in the midterms.

How do I know this? I’ve seen it happen just like this too many times before, and so have you. Republicans have been running this kind of jam session since 1994, and it’s high time someone got some garlic and a wooden stake. We’ve all seen how this vampire movie ends.

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