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Schumer amid the Covid-19 crisis: soothsayer, legislator and punching bag

WASHINGTON – In late January, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was thousands of points higher than it it is now and people could crowd into restaurants and bars and stadiums, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer fixated on a threat that, according to President Trump, was "totally under control."

Only three coronavirus cases had been reported in America at that point, but Schumer, at a Jan. 26 news conference in New York, made himself the first lawmaker to ask the Centers for Disease Control to declare a public health emergency.

"You can never be too careful when it comes to something as deadly and virulent as this virus," Schumer said.

So began a period of weeks in which Schumer made himself the Cassandra of Covid-19, warning Trump and the rest of the nation that a threat that seemed far away could explode on America's shores.

Since then, Schumer pushed for an $8.5 billion bill to fight the virus in early March – and got $8.3 billion. Schumer also won additional Medicaid funding for New York and other states in a second coronavirus bill, as well as state and local aid in the gigantic $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package.

His thanks for all of this? Complaints from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that Schumer didn't bring enough money back home – and a mocking letter from the president, calling the four-term Democrat from Brooklyn a bad senator.

Schumer doesn't appear to be letting any of this bother him. Holed up in his Brooklyn home with his wife, his daughter, his son-in-law and his toddler grandson, Schumer worked the phones all last week, plotting out more legislation and pressing the Trump administration to act faster to get medical supplies where they need to go.

"I've got to keep fighting, and I do," Schumer, 69, said via telephone last week. "I'm working harder than I ever have."

The soothsayer

If it's Sunday, it's news conference time for Schumer in his hometown. But the one he did on Jan. 26 wasn't about the big news of the time: Trump's Senate impeachment trial. It was about a threat that worried Schumer.

Flashing photos of the round and spiky but then unfamiliar coronavirus, he said: "It's a very weird-looking thing. It doesn't look as evil as it is."

Schumer said the CDC should declare a public health emergency to access $85 million to fight the pathogen – and a few days later, the agency did just that.

Asked how he knew to press for action so early, Schumer said: "All you had to do was follow what was happening in China and then talk to some experts. They said it's inevitable; it's going to come here."

Even after the CDC declared a health emergency, Schumer kept pressing for more federal action. In late January he and his Democratic Senate colleagues asked Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for more information and regular updates about the virus. In mid-February, Schumer called on the federal government to help New York City with coronavirus expenses and raged about Trump's proposal to cut funding in the CDC's infectious disease rapid response reserve fund.

And as Covid-19 cases flared on the West Coast and as Trump predicted the virus would disappear by April, Schumer reached an unwelcome conclusion.

"The Trump administration has been caught flat-footed," he said Feb. 25 on the Senate floor. "The administration has no plan to deal with the coronavirus — no plan — and seemingly no urgency to develop one."

The legislator

The Trump administration actually had just put forth a proposal for $2.5 billion in funding to fight the spreading virus, but Schumer dismissed the plan as woefully inadequate and, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, pressed for $8.5 billion in spending instead.

Trump wasn't pleased.

"Cryin’ Chuck Schumer is complaining, for publicity purposes only, that I should be asking for more money than $2.5 Billion to prepare for Coronavirus," he tweeted on Feb. 25. "If I asked for more he would say it is too much...He is incompetent!"

Pelosi then slightly trimmed the proposal she introduced with Schumer into an $8.3 billion bill to fight the coronavirus on the federal, state and local level. Both houses of Congress overwhelmingly approved the measure and Trump quickly signed it.

That was just the start of Schumer's role in legislating amid the coronavirus crisis. Almost immediately, the Democratic House began work on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which boosts funding for food stamps and unemployment insurance and offers a modest mandatory sick-leave provision.

Schumer pushed for more Medicaid money for New York and other states in that legislation, which Trump signed into law as the pandemic began pounding the state in mid-March. Over Republican objections and with Pelosi's help, Schumer got what he wanted: up to $6.7 billion for his home state in Medicaid funding over the next year.

"It's interesting that they were able to get that through in the context of Washington, having divided control of Congress and the Democrats only having one house," said Bill Hammond,  director of health policy at the Empire Center for Public Policy, a right-leaning think tank in Albany. "It's testament to how much leverage Pelosi had in that situation, that she could get it."

Schumer played a much bigger role in the third and largest bill to pass Congress amid the crisis: the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. That bill originated it in the Senate, and he held it up for days to force Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to accept some Democratic demands – such as vastly expanded unemployment benefits and aid to state and local governments.

Senate passes, president signs bill with Medicaid money for NY

Between the last two coronavirus bills, the New York State government will get upward of $15.9 billion, Schumer's office said. That's out of more than $115 billion set to come to the state's governments, hospitals, businesses and taxpayers.

"It's easy for us to point fingers, sort of, at the Democratic leadership, but the big challenge here was that Leader McConnell started with a bill that didn't include any of these critical priorities," said Aviva Aron-Dine, vice president for health policy at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

The punching bag

For all of his efforts on coronavirus, Schumer has won more punches than plaudits.

Cuomo raged about the Families First measure, all because it includes a provision that prevented him from pushing more Medicaid costs onto counties and otherwise barred him from cutting the health program. He dismissed that provision as "insanity" and said it could prevent him from even accepting any of the extra federal Medicaid money.

The governor didn't take kindly to the later $2 trillion stimulus package, either, partly because it didn't repeal the provision tying his hands on Medicaid, partly because he thought New York didn't get enough aid.

"The congressional action, in my opinion, simply failed to address the governmental need," Cuomo said. "I find it irresponsible. I find it reckless."

In response, Schumer defended himself with data, churning out reams of numbers detailing how much money the two federal measures will bring to the state.

"It's not everything they need but that's a good start," Schumer said.

Asked if Cuomo was pushing so hard on the issue in hopes of getting more funding in the fourth big coronavirus bill that Congress will likely consider when it returns to Washington in late April, Schumer said: "I do. And we're going to work very hard on that fourth bill."

For now, though, Schumer is working hard to push Trump to fully invoke the Defense Production Act to force companies to produce more needed medical equipment, and to appoint a "czar" to oversee the production and distribution of that equipment.

This enraged Trump to the point that he wrote Schumer a tweet-like letter last Thursday.

“You should have had New York much better prepared than you did," Trump wrote. “I’ve known you for many years, but I never knew how bad a senator you are for the state of New York, until I became president.”

Asked about that letter on MSNBC Thursday night, Schumer refused to fight fire with fire. Instead he offered Trump the same simple advice he's been offering him about the coronavirus crisis since before it was a crisis.

"President Trump, we need leadership," Schumer said. "We need to get the job done. Stop the pettiness. Let's get it done. Let's roll up our sleeves."

Trump, Schumer spar over coronavirus response


Trump versus Schumer on the coronavirus: a timeline

President Trump and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, offered radically different views of the coronavirus outbreak in its earliest days. Here's a look at what they had to say:

Trump, Jan. 22: "We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It’s going to be just fine.”

Schumer, Jan. 26: ""You can never be too careful when it comes to something as deadly and virulent as this virus."

Trump, Jan. 30: “We have it very well under control. We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.”

Schumer, Feb. 10: "We were able to tackle Ebola aggressively because we were also able to guarantee that expenses would be reimbursed, and I fought hard for that, but right now we need the same kind of federal support to appropriately tackle the coronavirus."

Trump, Feb. 10: "Looks like by April, you know, in theory, when it gets a little warmer, it miraculously goes away."

Schumer, Feb. 11: "The President even proposes a $35 million cut to the CDC's infectious disease rapid response reserve fund. This is the fund current being used to respond to the coronavirus outbreak."

Trump, Feb. 19: "I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along.”

Schumer, Feb. 25: "The Trump administration has been caught flat-footed. The administration has no plan to deal with the coronavirus — no plan — and seemingly no urgency to develop one."

Trump, Feb. 25: "Cryin’ Chuck Schumer is complaining, for publicity purposes only, that I should be asking for more money than $2.5 Billion to prepare for Coronavirus. If I asked for more he would say it is too much. He didn’t like my early travel closings. I was right. He is incompetent!"

Schumer, Feb. 27: "Instead of quickly marshaling the resources of the federal government to respond to this health crisis, President Trump is intent on blaming everyone and everything instead of solving the problem."

Trump, Feb. 27: "It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

Schumer, Feb. 28: "Hiding the truth about the coronavirus and the government’s response only increases the likelihood of the virus spreading."

Trump, March 2: "It's very mild."

Schumer, March 4: "President Trump: people are sick. People are dying."

Trump, March 9: "So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!"

Schumer, March 10: "One word describes the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus so far: incompetence."

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