In January of 1953, Lyndon Johnson, Democrat from Texas, was chosen by his Senate caucus to be the minority leader. He was the least senior Senator ever elected to this position. The following year, the Democrats recaptured the majority from the Eisenhower-wave Republicans and LBJ became the Senate Majority Leader.
Johnson quickly used his power and connections to shepherd through tough legislation that could be signed by the Republican President. His most impressive accomplishment was breaking southern filibusters and passing the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts, which were the first civil rights bills signed into law since the election of Rutherford B. Hayes.
Stories of Johnson's time in the Senate are legend in Washington, the most famous of which is the description by Rowland Evans and Bob Novak of LBJ's negotiating tactic, "The Treatment":
The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson's offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach.
Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.
Johnson knew the Senate and its Senators. He both respected the institution and knew how to get what he wanted. So deep was his love for the Legislative branch that a schism was created in the White House when, as Vice President, Johnson was resentful that the young Kennedy team did not put him in charge of pushing the administration's legislative agenda through Congress.
Many people today bemoan the weak Senate leadership that exists in both parties. I am sometimes taken aback when I think of how ineffective Bill Frist was as his job, and how many conservative Republican bills died in the Senate during the Bush years. Now, of course, the Democrats face the same problem, as hundreds of bills have passed the House during the 111th Congress that have not been considered by the Senate, many of which are progressive priorities.
Why don't we have Senate leaders like LBJ anymore? Is a personal style? Or is the Senate so deadlocked by filibusters and unanimous consent agreements that it simply can't get important business done?
Maybe it's both.
Yesterday, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York held a hearing as the chair of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on how the filibuster can be changed:
We learned in our first hearing that the use of the filibuster has reached unprecedented levels. This chart, prepared from facts supplied by the Congressional Research Service, shows that the use of cloture motions has escalated rapidly in recent Congresses. Cloture motion counts are useful because they represent a response to filibuster tactics – actual filibusters, threats or realistic expectations of them.
During the first period, from 1917 to 1971, there was an average of 1.1 cloture motions filed per year. The next period is from 1971 to 1993, when there was an average of 21 filibusters per year. In the period from 1993-2007, that number increased by almost a third – to an average of 37 cloture motions per year.
Then we come to the 110th and the beginning of the 111th congress. We are now averaging more than 70 cloture motions per year. That’s an average of two per week when we’re in session.
Schumer has come out in favor of reforming the filibuster on the first day of the 112th Congress next year. On that day, the Senate's rules can be rewritten by a simple majority vote. Schumer has not yet decided on what form filibuster reform should take, but he is in favor of changing it.
Why is Schumer's opinion important? Because he may be the next Senate Majority Leader:
Now, with confidant Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) hanging on to his seat by a thread, the Brooklynite is nearing the goal line of his long game. Succeeding Reid would make Schumer the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history and, more important for the uber-competitive politician, the first among peers. Schumer has thrust himself into the center of issues ranging from jobs to immigration to Supreme Court hearings, but as that momentum has carried him into a more intimate arena where popularity matters, the grating architect of the current Democratic majority has become noticeably more collegial. Perhaps not coincidentally, his colleagues see him as the front-runner to be their leader.
"It's very much within the realm of possibility," said Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who lost a race for minority leader to South Dakota's Tom Daschle by a vote in 1994. "He's always moving and always talking to people and he has a very good feel for what other people have to put up with. And that's a critical point of that job, understanding the environment your colleague has to operate in."
Schumer declined to be interviewed for this story and betrays an uncharacteristic loss for words whenever the term "majority leader" is uttered. Reid is, after all, still in control, and his closest competitor is Dick Durbin of Illinois, the liberal majority whip with whom Schumer has shared a Washington townhouse for years. Each can boast a strength: Durbin has the pleasant demeanor of a consensus builder; Schumer is the diehard fighter who has never lost an election. The prospect of a Chicago vs. New York majority leader race with echoes of Obama vs. Clinton is tantalizing, but also distracting.
Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said that the prospective race loomed over Schumer's and Durbin's floor chats with colleagues and said that when Schumer recently approached him about working together on technology or travel legislation, he took the New Yorker's motives at face value. But he's not naive: "Now maybe he wants me on board for other reasons."
Schumer is at largely responsible for getting the Democrats their majority in the Senate. In 2006, he did what many considered to be impossible and ran the table on the Republicans. In a year when more Democrats were up for reelection than Republicans, Schumer, as the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, managed to win six new Senate seats without losing a single one. In 2008, he added another nine seats to that total.
Because of his work at the DSCC, there are over a dozen young Democrats in the Senate who are indebted to him. Add to that number Senator Kirstin Gillibrand, the junior Senator from NY, and you have a powerful backing that could put Schumer in charge of the Senate if Reid loses his bid for another term.
Furthermore, the newer Senators that form Schumer's base are much more likely to support reforming the filibuster. While senior members like Chris Dodd and Robert Byrd are most reluctant to see the institution of the Senate change, reformers like Democratic Senators Shaheen, Begich, Tom Udall, McCaskill, Sanders, Casey and Sherrod Brown are pushing for change.
But beyond the hopes of reform, Schumer has some other valuable, familiar skills that would be a welcome change from the recent leaders of the Senate:
Schumer's political power in Washington has always rested on the local pillars of voracious fundraising and manic courtship of the media, a cornerstone of which is the Sunday news conference. The idea is that exposure demonstrates hard work to voters and shows colleagues that collaboration will be rewarded with coverage in the New York-based national media.
"It may seem he has a pathological need for attention," said one of more than a dozen former aides interviewed for this article. "But there is a method to the madness. He thinks it's key to his survival."
Schumer often tells staffers that he is a senatorial mix of the brainy Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the hands-on D'Amato. But he is as much his own creation. As he toned down his signature advocacy for gun control, which had become politically poisonous, he chimed in on less partisan issues. He also glommed onto colleagues' legislation or news conferences, a tacky scheme so common it became a verb, as when a colleague "got Schumered."
What he lacked in decorum, he made up for in persistence.
One former staffer recalled that Schumer always carried a narrow white card in his jacket's breast pocket: On one side was a call list covered with dozens of names and on the other, he had scrawled the senators he needed to nab.
"He'd buttonhole the senators," recalled the staffer, who added that Schumer, upon making an agreement, would rush to the cloakroom, relay the news to his staff and instruct them to coordinate a news release with his counterpart's aides, "before they could unwind it," inking any deal at the moment of agreement.
If Reid loses in November, the race to replace him will have consequences--but not only for the 112th Congress. The changes that the Democrats put in place next January will forever change the first branch of Government. Furthermore, we are going to need a Majority Leader who can shepherd legislation through a Senate with a shrinking majority. While both Durbin and Schumer would be improvements over Reid, one (maybe Schumer, maybe Durbin) will invariably be better than the other at guaranteeing filibuster reform and other progressive priorities.
This is an important aspect to keep in mind as we head closer to November. Once the elections are over, the fight will have only just begun.