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Sen. Chuck Schumer Is 'Ready For The Fight'

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Back in 2006, Republicans lost Congress. Soon afterward, we met the new leader of the Senate Republicans, Mitch McConnell, who was about to use the Senate's rules to slow down or stop Democrats.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: Nothing happens this quickly in the Senate, which is invariably frustrating to the majority in the Senate and liberating to the minority.

INSKEEP: Liberating - McConnell relished the fight. These days, McConnell's party is up and Democrats are down. And Senator Chuck Schumer of New York is the new minority leader slowing down the majority.

Is it fun to be the minority leader of the U.S. Senate?

CHUCK SCHUMER: Well, let me tell you something - the day - I was totally shocked when we lost, as were my daughters, one of whom was working in the Hillary campaign.

INSKEEP: Democrats had been favored to win both the White House and the Senate and failed both times. Afterwards, Schumer says he realized he would have power in the minority to shape events.

SCHUMER: And I'm actually - I'm ready for the fight. I'm from Brooklyn. You know, I don't - I don't mind that stuff.

INSKEEP: We spoke with Senator Schumer in his Capitol office early yesterday morning. He had a view of the Washington Monument. It was the morning after the president's speech to Congress, widely praised for a different tone.

And of course, tone is not everything. Substance is far more important, but he made some signals on the substance, which makes me wonder - are you facing an opponent, a political opponent here, who is learning as he goes?

SCHUMER: We'll have to wait and see because the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. See, for us who's listened to him for so long, it's nothing new. Some of the pundits think, gee, he talked about infrastructure. He's been talking about infrastructure for a long time.

INSKEEP: Throughout the campaign, sure.

SCHUMER: Yeah, throughout the campaign, as president-elect. We Democrats, the whole Democratic caucus, we put in an infrastructure bill - a trillion dollars, the number he had picked - four weeks ago. We haven't heard a peep out of them. So this happens over and over again. You know, immigration - he gets a bunch of cosmopolitan anchors in and says, oh, well, maybe I'll change my views on immigration. Then he gives a speech that is virulently, nastily anti-immigrant.

INSKEEP: Although, he also said he could work with Democrats on immigration reform.

SCHUMER: But he said that three weeks ago when Joe Manchin saw him at the White House and another time before that and backed off the next day because his base rose up against him. And he always campaigned on the anti-immigration theme. So I guess my basic feeling is - look, were his words softer? Sure, but it doesn't make much of a difference.

INSKEEP: Granting, you don't think he's serious on some of these things, but suppose he shows up and is serious and says I'm serious and ready to negotiate on immigration reform. Can you work with him?

SCHUMER: Well, it depends what he means by negotiate. He said he wanted to reach out to Democrats. He hasn't reached out to anybody. I haven't heard from him since Inauguration Day. It's not that it bothers me. That's just who he is. And he's still not paying attention to the substance. They write a nice speech for him, but it's - I'd like to see it reflected in some reality. So sure, if I was convinced they might resurrect the bill that Schumer and McCain put together, a bipartisan bill...

INSKEEP: Back in 2013, this was the Gang of Eight bill.

SCHUMER: Yeah, and it was bipartisan, and it had many of the things he's talked about. It really was tougher on the border than any wall would be. Sure, you'd want to work with him. But forgive me for a bit of skepticism because we've been through this both in the campaign, as president-elect and for the first 40 days. And we haven't seen a peep of it.

INSKEEP: To be particular about what he said about immigration reform, he spoke about changing the rules for allowing people into the country so people with more skills could get in.

SCHUMER: Yes.

INSKEEP: He did not specifically mention a path to citizenship...

SCHUMER: Which is the key.

INSKEEP: ...Or legal status for people who are here illegally.

SCHUMER: Right, which is the key. And then...

INSKEEP: Is there no deal if he doesn't got for that?

SCHUMER: He has to deal with the people - the 11 million who are here. That has always been the stumbling block, and he has to deal with that. But then he talks about setting up this commission for people who are victims of immigrants. He's still trying to portray to America that most immigrants are criminals, are terrorists.

INSKEEP: You're citing statistics to me, in effect. You're noting that immigrants statistically are no more dangerous than anybody else. Here...

SCHUMER: Less actually.

INSKEEP: Less in many cases.

SCHUMER: But he gives - but one of the highlights of his speech, which got huge - and remember, he's got this hard-right base here. They got wildly applauded with this group he put together.

INSKEEP: But speak to the people who are applauding and voters who respond to that because we go out and interview voters, and people remember the specific stories of individuals who were killed. What do you say to them?

SCHUMER: What we say to them is we are definitely for quick deportation of any illegal immigrant who has committed a serious crime. But what Donald Trump is doing is going way beyond that and now beginning to actually deport people who have committed no crime at all and just want to be part of the American dream. That's not a path to immigration compromise.

INSKEEP: Now, you mentioned infrastructure.

SCHUMER: Yes.

INSKEEP: You don't like the form that Republicans seem to be shaping it in, but you like the idea of a trillion dollars for infrastructure.

SCHUMER: Well, you're giving them a little more credit. They're not seeming to be shaping it in anything yet.

INSKEEP: But they've talked about it in any case. But this leads to a question - suppose the president did show up and said here's a serious infrastructure plan, trillion dollars on the table, some form you could handle. Would your base voters allow Democratic senators to go along with that?

SCHUMER: Well, here's what I have...

INSKEEP: Because they want total opposition.

SCHUMER: Here's what I have said. I have said we are not going to oppose something just because the name Trump is on it. We're not going to do what Mitch McConnell did. But we're going to look at specifically what has been proposed, and we're not going to compromise for it's own sake.

INSKEEP: You say you don't want to say no to everything, but is health care, repealing and replacing Obamacare, a subject in which you will say no to everything where Democrats will all vote no?

SCHUMER: We have all - we, the - every one of the 48 Democrats has said we will not be for any form of repeal. If they want to give up on repeal, well, then - so we've said we'll then sit down and negotiate with them how to improve Obamacare - ACA. But they're stuck, and this is another thing about the governing. So again, he talked in sort of broad strokes about repealing ACA. He didn't back off it.

Earlier that day, three Republican senators said that they will only be for repeal. They don't want any replacement - Paul, Cruz and Lee. Well, that's the margin. If they lose three Republican votes, they don't have the votes to pass it. And that's why his speeches have sort of an air of unreality to them. The only way he's going to get something done on health care is by dropping repeal.

INSKEEP: Are you going to beat them?

SCHUMER: The odds are much greater than half right now that we will keep the Affordable Care Act. And I think Donald Trump, once again, is living in a world of unreality when he keeps talking about repealing it. And he's going to tie himself in a knot.

INSKEEP: I want people to know that you ran the Democratic Senate campaign in 2006...

SCHUMER: Yes.

INSKEEP: ...Which is when Democrats were in the minority and won back the majority.

SCHUMER: Yeah, in four years, we went from 45 senators to 59.

INSKEEP: What lessons, if any, are applicable from that time?

SCHUMER: An unpopular president helps us dramatically. We don't want this president to fail in the sense that - we want to move middle class and people trying to get into the middle class forward. But this is who he seems to be, a hard-right guy. And if he continues on this path, we have a very good chance to do extremely well in the 2018 elections. The number one factor that determines how the party out of power does in the off-year elections is the popularity of the president. Right now, his numbers are historically low. I don't see them getting better. He may get a blip from a speech like this, but that's ephemeral.

INSKEEP: Here's a memory I have of 2006 when Democrats captured control - Democrats were perceived as tacking a little more right, talking a little bit less about gun control. Is that something you want the party to do now?

SCHUMER: Well, I - here's what we're going to talk about - and I do look at the 2016 elections. We should have won. We got to look in the mirror and say, what'd we do wrong? Here's what we did wrong. We did not have a strong, bold, if you will, somewhat populist economic message. So when you asked average voters who didn't like Trump and were not particularly fond of Hillary, what is the Democratic Party mean - stand for that will help you, they couldn't name anything. 2018 - they're going to name a whole bunch of things because we are going to have a strong plan.

INSKEEP: Senator Schumer, thanks very much.

SCHUMER: Thank you.

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INSKEEP: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York spoke with us yesterday morning in his office at the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.