A few days before Washington staggered into what would become the longest shutdown in U.S. history, Chuck Schumer received a request from Donald Trump.
The president wanted the Senate minority leader to visit the White House to discuss his demands for the border wall, which would need Democratic votes to pass the GOP-controlled Senate. Previously, Schumer had held one-on-one negotiations with Trump. But this time, the New York Democrat had a new condition: “Only with Nancy.”
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“We do it all together, that’s an agreement we had from the get-go,” Schumer said of his stance with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on not giving Trump an inch on the wall.
“We realize we’re a team,” Schumer added in an interview. “Sometimes we talk strategy four to five times a day. And there are times we disagree. But we come to the same result.”
Republicans have tried to drive a wedge between the duo for more than a month now. They’ve cast Schumer as eager to cut a deal and Pelosi as an impediment. They’ve floated the idea that Pelosi would be more willing to compromise after she was elected speaker. Trump tried again on Saturday, pitching temporary protections for Dreamers and other immigrants, in exchange for $5.7 billion in border wall funding.
None of it has worked.
Democrats realize the only way to get the president to cave on the wall and reopen the government is to stick together, a plan they reiterated when they roundly rejected Trump’s latest proposal.
And by setting a model of unity, Schumer and Pelosi have also kept moderates in their caucus from breaking ranks and underscored how difficult it will be for Trump to get Democrats to fold. From House freshmen in Trump-held districts to centrist Senate Democrats like Joe Manchin of West Virginia, they’ve all said: Open the government, then let’s talk about the border.
Republicans say that rank-and-file Democrats are more eager to break away from their leaders than they let on and have been frustrated by the party’s lockstep opposition.
“Every one of them has an election certificate, and it’s not signed by Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. So do what you think is right,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).
But with a combined 70 years of service on Capitol Hill, the two are the experienced, old school pols that many Democrats want leading them against a volatile and capricious president. That’s even as Schumer and Pelosi, 68 and 78 respectively, diverge in some ways from the party they lead, which is more diverse and younger than ever.
And though the Democratic leaders came up in the House together, represent liberal coastal areas and even were part of the same dinner group years ago, their approach to politics often differs.
Schumer tends to slouch when the cameras are turned off and brings leftovers in a Tupperware into the Senate each week. Pelosi (D-Calif.) has become something of a fashion icon, clad in superbly tailored pantsuits or dresses, often with perfectly matching high heels. One of Pelosi’s jackets even took on a life of its own — resulting in the designer bringing it back because of overwhelming demand — after she wore it to tangle with Trump in January.
Schumer fashions himself a messaging and political guru and is known for ingratiating himself with his members. He was accused by liberals of not whipping his moderate members hard enough last year against GOP priorities, but consolidated power internally by giving centrists an opportunity to craft their own political images.
Pelosi hails from a Baltimore political dynasty and is more of a blunt operator. She also deals with internal critics swiftly and efficiently, blocking Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.) from a plum committee spot for trying to oust her as party leader.
“It’s a magical odd couple,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Very different backgrounds, different religions, different manners, different physical appearances. He’s the Jewish Brooklyn guy, she is the West Coast, you know, sort of glamorous hobnobbing with movie stars.”
During Trump’s first two years, Pelosi would often defer to her Senate counterpart, who had the ability to filibuster GOP legislation. As the new House speaker, Pelosi’s effectively canceling Trump’s State of the Union address. With Pelosi now the top Democrat in Washington, “the dynamic is changing,” said one lawmaker with insight into the relationship between the two party leaders.
Pelosi and Schumer appear to be managing the shift in power relatively well. But their tag-team leadership style has at times opened them up to criticism.
When they learned that Trump would give a prime-time address on the border wall this month, Pelosi and Schumer connected immediately. They quickly ruled out picking a rank-and-file member or young, rising Democratic star to push back against Trump, ignoring those who noted the two leaders aren’t the most dynamic speakers in the party.
And though Pelosi now outranked Schumer, they decided they’d do it together. They were the ones who had spent hours with Trump, and they would be the best at responding to him.
“Why not pick someone else? Because you had to do it very quickly, we didn’t know what he was going to say,” Schumer recalled. “We knew him best and what he would say and what he had said before.”
Still, their response to Trump sparked laughs as they shared a podium, staring unsmiling and stiff before the camera.
“Oh my god,” said one freshman Democrat. “Visually, it wasn’t the best idea.”
Added Rep. Juan Vargas (D-Calif.), who expressed a sentiment shared by many Democrats: “It did look funny, there was no doubt about it.”
American Gothic, the painting by artist Grant Wood, was one of the frequent comparisons — and not only on Twitter.
“Grant Wood was at that podium,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “Was that a meme too? I guess it had to be. It was too obvious.”
Yet they earned better TV ratings than Trump, and simply reinforced that there would be no split between them.
Their strategy sessions have centered on more than just optics. Schumer has frequently crossed the Capitol to join in House Democratic leadership meetings and huddles with the wider caucus.
After the Senate passed a bill guaranteeing backpay for furloughed and unpaid federal workers, Schumer asked Pelosi if she would take up the Senate bill to avoid having to reconcile it with a separate House measure and she agreed, according to two people familiar with their conversations. Trump signed the bill soon after.
The two also consulted before Pelosi began having the House pass piecemeal bills to reopen parts of the government; Schumer told her he liked the idea, reasoning it would put more pressure on McConnell, those people said.
“They trust one another, they value one another’s judgment,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
“She is the lead Democrat by virtue of her title and majority status,” added Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.). “He kind of is playing the role of wingman right now [but] I think Chuck is a pro and I think he understands roles ebb and flow.”
With Democrats in control of the House and still wielding the filibuster in the Senate, Trump’s legislative agenda now is at the mercy of Pelosi and Schumer — as long as they remain united.
“It forces Republicans to think differently about their strategy if they see Nancy and Chuck as a unit for the next two years,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a former House member.
The shutdown fight actually started with some intra-party division. Pelosi’s members were frustrated that Schumer’s Senate was advocating for $1.6 billion in border fencing, part of a bipartisan deal hatched in the summer. House Democrats wanted $1.3 billion, freezing spending at current levels.
Quietly after the midterms, Schumer canned the higher number. He said it could not pass the House. And that was that. Ever since, Pelosi and Schumer have earned the nickname Trump bestowed, “Chuck and Nancy,” even though it might be more appropriate these days for Pelosi’s name to go first.
“I don’t think the speaker of the House or Senate minority leader are concerned about their power. They’re both very secure in who they are,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). “People with real power don’t have to flex power.”
Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.