Donald Trump is still two weeks from his presidential inauguration, but new Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer sounds ready to do battle with a Republican-controlled Senate, House and White House.
"We're going to hold Donald Trump's feet to the fire," the New York Democrat told NPR's Audie Cornish on All Things Considered while sitting in front of the fireplace near his desk. "Our job is going to be to hold Donald Trump and the Republican majority accountable."
Schumer hasn't quite moved into his suite of Capitol offices. Boxes are heaped in corridors and naked hooks poke from the walls of Schumer's ornate chambers on the second floor. Just outside the windows is the inaugural podium being built and beyond it, the National Mall.
Inside, amid the clutter, the new Senate minority leader is wasting no time defending Democratic policies and programs from the incoming administration and its congressional allies, even if he has less leverage than he had hoped to have.
Schumer hinted at the Democrats' relatively weak position, as Republicans move quickly to repeal Obamacare. He repeatedly said Democrats would not cooperate with any Affordable Care Act replacement if the GOP pushes ahead with repeal, but then allowed that "there might be a thing or two" in competing Republican plans he finds appealing.
He also brought negotiations into the open by putting public pressure on GOP senators from Maine and Alaska to vote against repeal.
"Now they want to eliminate the funding of Planned Parenthood," he said, referring to a plan by House Speaker Paul Ryan to include such provisions in legislation undoing Obamacare, "so people like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are having some qualms about this."
Schumer hinted at some of the legislative maneuvers Democrats may employ to stymie Obamacare repeal.
"We'll have an amendment on the floor of the Senate, as we debate ACA," he explained, "that quotes Donald Trump and says we're opposed to cutting health care — Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security for that matter."
Before his intelligence briefing today, the president-elect told the New York Times that the attention devoted to Russian attempts to influence the election is "a political witch hunt."
Schumer called that "flip and glib."
"Before you even get the briefing, you come to a conclusion — that's not the way to govern," he said. "And I have said ... that we can't have a Twitter presidency. This is serious stuff, this governing, and to just be flip and glib and tweet ... you've got to do a lot more. And certainly any president — Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative — should keep an open mind until they get the briefing."
Schumer also responded to Trump's calling him a "clown."
"I didn't tweet back a name — that's derogating the debate," Schumer said. "I said I understand your anguish, Mr. President-elect, because you don't know what to replace the ACA with. But instead of calling names, roll up your sleeves and come up with a replacement. So I'm not going to descend to name-calling."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
On January 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president, and Barack Obama will leave the White House. Also on that day, Senator Charles Schumer of New York will become the most powerful Democrat in Washington. As the Senate minority leader, he heads his party in the House of Congress that because of Senate rules has really the only chance of stopping or stalling the Republican agenda. And if this week is any indication, Schumer will be spending much of his time responding to statements made by Donald Trump.
In his new office in the Capitol, I asked him about what the president-elect had to say to The New York Times this morning. Before today's intelligence briefing, Trump called allegations of Russian involvement in the election a political witch hunt.
CHARLES SCHUMER: That's not the way to govern. We can't have a Twitter president. This is serious stuff, this governing. And to just, you know, be flip and glib and tweet - nothing wrong with tweeting, it's a good way to reach constituents. And Trump did that very well during the campaign, but you got to do a lot more. And certainly any president - Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative - should keep an open mind until they get the briefing.
CORNISH: At this point, do you think that this process though can accurately be called politicized? I mean, is there any way to separate it from the election?
SCHUMER: I don't think, you know, knowing the people in the agencies who do this, no, I don't think it's politicized.
CORNISH: Then we moved on to the Democrats' message, in particular job creation in an economy that's struggling to bring back manufacturing jobs.
SCHUMER: The bottom line is we lost this election. And when you lose an election, you don't blink, you don't turn away. You look it right in the eye and say, why did we lose? And I think the number one reason we lost is we didn't have a sharp bold economic message that creates jobs and particularly jobs in the heartland and manufacturing jobs. If you have a sharp bold economic message, you can unite everybody.
So what we are going to do as Democrats is put together a really strong platform that focuses on jobs and economic issues. And then you won't have to make this choice that the pundits talk about which is, oh, are you going to appeal to the Obama coalition or the blue collar worker? An economic message, an economic platform unites the factory worker in Scranton, the young woman in Los Angeles struggling to pay her college debt and the single mom in Buffalo who's on minimum wage.
CORNISH: But to implement any part of that platform, somebody is going to end up working with Republicans, and it right now does not sound like you're ready to do that.
SCHUMER: We're going to hold Donald Trump's feet to the fire. He campaigned sort of as anti-establishment, anti-democratic and anti-Republican establishments. But if you look at his Cabinet choices, they're all - they're almost by and large hard-right. So what we're going to do, I think things are going to turn around in a year. I think Republicans will start working with us. But at the beginning, our job is going to be to hold Donald Trump and the Republican majority accountable.
CORNISH: But you also have upwards of 10 Democrats in your caucus who are in very red states, states that Trump won. You've got defections of your own to worry about, don't you?
SCHUMER: Not - on economic issues we are strong and united, and this caucus is united on everything. Take ACA - Obamacare - we had a vote yesterday on keeping all the benefits of ACA, every Democrat voted for it. We had a vote to move forward to debate their bill which would repeal ACA, and not a single Democrat voted no. We did get a Republican vote - Rand Paul. Now they want to eliminate the funding of Planned Parenthood, so people like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are having some qualms about this. So there's even a chance we could defeat their repeal.
CORNISH: Do you think there's always a little something that will draw a defection?
SCHUMER: Look, if Democrats stay united - and that's one of my jobs, so far so good - it'll be much easier to hold them accountable. And if they lose only three votes, they have trouble. And especially since it seems particularly on the House side, but even the president-elect are adopting such a hard-right agenda, makes it easier for us to get some Republican defections. Substantively we're much closer to where the American people are than they are.
They say repeal, but they know that they have to keep the good things in ACA - 20 million people who are covered who wouldn't have been, pre-existing conditions covered. A mom or dad has a child with cancer, and the insurance company can say we're not covering you because your kid has cancer. How about the college kids, 21 to 26, who now get covered?
CORNISH: Are you also listing your bottom line requirements for any Republican alternative that's offered?
SCHUMER: If they want to repeal it, they own it, and they have to come up with an alternative, then we'll look at the alternative. But we're not going to let them repeal it and then say, oh, let's work together to see what we can put together.
CORNISH: But there are no, I guess - is it the mandate? Is that the tax subsidies? Are there any things in a Republican alternative that would appeal to you?
SCHUMER: There might be a thing or two, but we're not for repeal because with repeal you can't keep all the good parts of ACA.
CORNISH: You know, recently you said to CNN that the only way we're going to work with him - Donald Trump - is if he moves completely in our direction and abandons his Republican colleagues. And you and other Democrats really hated that approach when Republicans took it.
SCHUMER: No. Well, what I've said is we're going to stay true to our values, OK, if you read the whole interview. We have values. We're not going to oppose something just 'cause it has Trump's name on it. If Trump were to say tomorrow - which he said in his campaign - he wants to repeal the carried interest loophole which allows a lot of these hedge funds to pay lower taxes than the average American, of course we'll vote with him, but we're going to keep our values. So take infrastructure, where we'd love to get a big infrastructure bill, and Trump campaigned on a trillion dollar infrastructure bill. That's a big bill.
CORNISH: Listening to the House this week, it doesn't look like it's in the front of the line for their priorities.
SCHUMER: No, it's not. But if - but just an example. But then - and I've said this to him in our phone conversations - I said if you're just going to try to do it with tax breaks, you're not going to get anything built and you're going to put huge tolls everywhere. You have to do it with real spending. And I said to the president-elect, if you're going to do it with real spending and garner good Democratic support, you're going to alienate your hard-right 'cause they don't want to spend money. It's going to be his choice, that's what I'm saying.
CORNISH: One of the things that I think many people who have opposed Donald Trump is - have found is that you run into that wall of tweets and that ability to seize the news cycle. How do you break through with your message when...
SCHUMER: Talk to...
CORNISH: ...Things can turn around in an hour?
SCHUMER: We stick to the facts. So Trump called me a name yesterday about ACA because I think, you know, we - he's struggling.
CORNISH: Yeah, he used the word clown.
SCHUMER: Yeah. And I said to him - I didn't tweet back a name, that's derogating the debate. I said I understand your anguish, Mr. President-elect, because you don't know what to replace a ACA with. But instead of calling names, roll up your sleeves and come up with a replacement. So I'm not going to descend to name calling, but I will answer him and answer him vigorously on the facts. I'm going to focus on people and what they need, not on name calling between politicians.
CORNISH: Charles Schumer, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SCHUMER: Thank you. Thank you very much, Audie.
CORNISH: New York Democrat Charles Schumer is the Senate minority leader.
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