Collins to Schumer: Stop being "an obstacle to bipartisanship"

Here’s a question that Senate Democrats should consider carefully. It’s one thing if Chuck Schumer can’t work with Mitch McConnell, but … Susan Collins? How do Democrats in the upper chamber expect to move their agenda if Schumer can’t even build a healthy relationship with the centrists?

Watch this clip, and then we’ll go to the New York Times for the context:

“I thought that Leader Schumer’s comments were bizarre,” Collins told NBC News on Wednesday, noting that she was one of three Republicans to support then-President Barack Obama’s $787 billion package to mitigate the pain of the financial crisis.

“He voted for the same package that I did,” Collins said. “So, for Chuck Schumer, who was intimately involved in the negotiations as the assistant leader, to somehow criticize me for taking the same position that he did, is simply bizarre. And I think it reflects regrettably his inability to accept the fact that despite pouring $100 million into defeating me, the people of Maine said no.” …

“No,” Schumer responded. “We made a big mistake in 2009 and ’10. Susan Collins was part of that mistake. We cut back on the stimulus dramatically and we stayed in recession for five years. What was offered by the Republicans was so far away from what’s needed, so far away from what Biden proposed that he thought that they were not being serious and wanting to really negotiate.”

That is a bizarre complaint, especially given the risks Collins took in crossing the aisle. Republicans whipped the vote against the 2009 stimulus as too pork-filled and expensive; Collins defied that whip and supported it anyway. The bill ended up spending a lot of money to little effect, as the economy began to recover without it, and its “shovel ready jobs” and other stimulus plans either consisted of previously scheduled road work or shifted consumer demand in housing and cars.

At any rate, Republicans had little to no input on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), and little impact on its overall spending level. This was the bill in which Barack Obama famously told Republicans hoping to negotiate on the package that “I won,” justifying his opting for Democrat-only drafting of the provisions. Less well remembered is that Obama himself set a spending limit on the bill at $850 billion, even while Democrats exclusively drafted the legislation:

As Senate Democrats prepare to bring their version of the package to the floor on Monday, House Democrats and the administration indicated they would ultimately accept a provision in the emerging Senate package that would adjust the alternative minimum tax to hold down many middle-class Americans’ income taxes for 2009. The provision was not in the House legislation.

Its cost would drive the overall package’s tally to nearly $900 billion. That would exceed the roughly $850 billion limit that Mr. Obama has set for Congress, House Democratic leadership aides said, and leave no room for other proposals that senators of both parties are poised to seek during Senate debate next week.

The House, with a large Democratic majority, passed a version of the ARRA with an $827 billion price tag; the Senate passed a version with a price tag of $820 billion, but with significantly different priorities and internal spending levels for them. A conference committee drew the bill down to $787 billion. No one “cut back on the stimulus dramatically,” although later progressives would claim that Democrats had wanted to spend $2 trillion. No proposals ever emerged that even reached the $1 trillion mark, however.

So this is a nonsense attack from Schumer on Collins, or in her words, “simply bizarre.” The New York Times explains a bit of the backstory, but it doesn’t improve matters much:

The bitter back-and-forth reflected the anger among moderate Republicans at being cut out of the stimulus negotiations, and how difficult it will be for Mr. Schumer to persuade them to cross party lines and join him on other proposals that will need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

It also highlighted a nasty rivalry between the two senators that has persisted for years, as Mr. Schumer has sought her vote on crucial legislation while repeatedly — and unsuccessfully — trying to recruit a candidate who could unseat her in what has become an increasingly blue state. It grew particularly toxic this past year after Mr. Schumer attacked her during her latest re-election race. She rarely misses a chance to remind him of her victories.

“Chuck Schumer has tried to take me out three times now,” Ms. Collins said in a recent interview with The New York Times, in which she called ads he ran against her in 2020 “deceptive” and “shameful.” “I know he’s a baseball fan. I hope he remembers three strikes and you’re out.”

Collins threatened to start going over Schumer’s head, although that may not be a workable solution:

She also noted that she has a close relationship with President Biden, whom she served with in the Senate and regards as open to bipartisan compromise, but sees Mr. Schumer as an impediment.

“I am going to continue to work with President Biden and his administration,” she said on Wednesday, naming a major infrastructure initiative as a common goal. “I just hope that Senator Schumer does not continue to be an obstacle to bipartisanship.”

This brings us back to my first question. In order to get their agenda passed, Democrats will need to find ways to work across the aisle, especially in a 50/50 Senate. Progressives keep talking about filibuster reform, but that’s less likely than seeing Joe Manchin flip to the GOP, which would really screw up this session of Congress. If Schumer’s lost Collins, he’s not likely to win anyone else. At this point, perhaps even Dick Durbin would be a better leader for the caucus to negotiate two years of an evenly split Senate.

One has to wonder whether the White House isn’t thinking the same thing, although the NYT reports that Biden chief of staff Ron Klain pushed Schumer’s comments out on Twitter. Maybe Collins shouldn’t have as much confidence in her access to Biden as she expressed today.