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Schumer now the most important Democrat in D.C.

NEW YORK — Sen. Charles E. Schumer stands, at the end of a devastating election night for his party, as the most important Democrat in the land.

As leader of the Democratic Senate minority in the coming Congress — and thanks to Senate rules that allow the minority to thwart a lot of what the majority wants — New York's senior senator stands in the way of whatever legislation President-elect Donald J. Trump and his team propose in fulfilling the new president's promise to "Make America Great Again."

[View 2016 election results]

Schumer's position is not infallible: Republican legislative maneuvers could outflank Schumer, particularly on money-related issues such as Obamacare. But even so, Schumer's Senate minority will be the Democrats' last line of defense.

Schumer did not want this, or plan it, not by a long shot. He worked hard for just the opposite: a Democratic Senate majority, enacting the agenda of a Democratic president, his old friend Hillary Clinton.

But now, with Republicans in control of both houses of Congress as well as the White House — and a new president who campaigned on some promises that are far outside the mainstream of either party — Schumer may have to do what minority leaders before him have done to put the brakes on the other party's agenda.

He may have to employ the filibuster.

Under the Senate's rules, any one senator or group of senators can start a stalling tactic called the filibuster in order to stand in the way of legislation or a nomination — and the only way the majority to stop it is to invoke "cloture." That means the majority has to muster at least 60 votes to end debate on the item and proceed to a vote.

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In effect, that rule means that 60 out of the 100 senators have to vote yes to pass anything of substance. And even though the Republicans had a very good election night, they fell far short of a filibuster-proof majority of 60 members.

Instead, as of Wednesday morning, it appears the next Senate comprise 52 Republicans and 48 lawmakers who caucus with the Democrats, giving the minority and its leader, Schumer, the power to say no.

It's unlikely to be a power Schumer relishes. In an interview this week, he, like just about every pundit in the country, didn't talk like he took the possibility of a Trump presidency seriously.

Instead, he talked of finding ways to craft compromises under a President Clinton, and with Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

"We've got to figure out ways to compromise, and that's where I'm going to put my energy, whether I'm majority leader or minority leader," Schumer said.

On Wednesday, though, Schumer turned down an interview request and instead issued a statement congratulating Trump and noting that the president-elect called him.

“This was a divisive and hard fought election, and the outcome surprised many Americans from both political parties," Schumer's statement said. "It is time for the country to come together and heal the bitter wounds from the campaign. Senate Democrats will spend the coming days and weeks reflecting on these results, hearing from the American people, and charting a path forward to achieve our shared goals and to defend our values.”

Doing so, though, may require Schumer and his Democratic caucus to draw one hard line after another.  After all, no Democrat will be immediately eager to compromise on a border wall, to compromise on a repeal of Obamacare, and so on.

Instead, on important issues Democrats most likely will strive to become just what they called the Republicans for the last eight years: the party of obstruction.

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Schumer will  try to negotiate with Republicans when he sees room for compromise, but will be likely to stand in the way of any GOP proposal that would hurt the middle class, said Phil Singer, founder of Marathon Strategies and a longtime Schumer aide a decade ago.

"If there's anybody who's up for that role, it's him," Singer said. "Chuck is unique in that he knows when to be a dealmaker and when to stand his ground and be a fighter."

In fact,  Schumer already has some experience in that fighting role. He took his first leadership role, as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, after President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 and as he proposed privatizing Social Security. Schumer was part of the Democratic Senate minority that helped block that proposal.

Then again, the Senate Democrats' ability to block such measures could be curtailed if the Senate Republican majority does something radical and changes the Senate rules. There is nothing in the Constitution mandating the filibuster as a legislative tactic. It is simply a quirk that developed out of the Senate's longstanding tradition of unlimited debate.

Various Senate majorities over the years have tweaked the filibuster, but none have dared to abandon it. That's because senators live in fear of being in the minority someday — and of being as irrelevant as members of House minorities long have felt.

Chances are that the new Senate majority will maintain the filibuster in some way, then — if only to let Schumer do the dirty work and stand in the way of Trumpian proposals that mainstream conservatives don't like, either.

On key dollars and cents issues, Republicans will try to do an end-around the filibuster by passing the Obamacare repeal and tax reform under a process called "reconciliation," said Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican who was the first House member to endorse Trump.

Budget bills passed under the reconciliation process only require a straight majority vote. So the process gives Republicans the possibility to keep their campaign promises on Obamacare and taxes, Collins said.

"If need be, that's what we're going to do," Collins said.

On nonbudgetary matters, though, Schumer and his Democratic minority should be able to block what Trump wants.

So perhaps Sam Hoyt, a longstanding Democrat who now serves as regional president of Empire State Development Corp., was prescient when he took to Facebook shortly after midnight to offer some solace to distraught Democrats.

"Two Extremely Important Words: Chuck Schumer!" Hoyt wrote.


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