The Dealmaker

Once the Democrats' top knife fighter, Chuck Schumer became a force on Capitol Hill by learning the art of compromise

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Andrew Cutraro for TIME

Senator Charles Schumer in his Washington DC office.

The fate of immigration reform was up for grabs in early June when Chuck Schumer jumped on the phone with an unlikely ally.

The bipartisan proposal to rewrite U.S. immigration law had cleared a key Senate committee and then just as quickly hit a snag. Marco Rubio was telling conservatives that the measure couldn't pass without tougher border security. Some Democrats scoffed, but Schumer wanted to accommodate the Florida Republican. Let me know what changes you want to make, he told Rubio over the telephone. I'm willing to listen if it will help bring Republicans along.

For most of his three decades in Congress, Charles Ellis Schumer has been better known for skewering Republicans than for bringing them to the bargaining table. But this year the 62-year-old Democrat is emerging as Washington's top dealmaker, an architect of both the immigration bill that is poised to win approval in the Senate this summer and the gun-control pact that stumbled there in the spring. In a city where Barack Obama's clout seems to be evaporating by the day, much of the President's second-term agenda hinges on Schumer's ability to swap his feel for the jugular for the lost art of compromise.

Sinking into a plush striped chair in his Hart Senate office, the Brooklyn native says the secret to doing a big deal is simple. "You have to walk in the other guy's moccasins. If you want to bring somebody onto your side, you have to figure out what motivates them."

But first you have to get to know them. Schumer and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander launched a series of wine-and-cheese summits two years ago, turning a room on the first floor of the Capitol, dubbed the Inner Sanctum, into a social club where Senators could mingle. To grease the gun deal, he courted conservatives at beer-and-pizza fiestas aboard West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin's yacht, the Black Tie, anchored on the Potomac south of Washington. Schumer invokes the ghosts of the late Ted Kennedy and Dan Rostenkowski, two legendary legislators, when he talks about his new role. "Compromise is not a dirty word to me," he says. "If you want to be a knight on a white horse, always espousing 100% purity, then you shouldn't be in the Senate."

If it reaches the President's desk, the immigration bill would provide a path to citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants, beef up border security and regulate the flow of future immigrants to the U.S. Each of the eight Republicans and Democrats who helped craft the original proposal has had a role in selling it. But Schumer is the group's Krazy Glue. His contributions have been "pivotal," says Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, one of four Republicans in the group. "He's the lead negotiator on the Democratic side."

Some allies have groused that the desire to do a deal has spurred Schumer to give away too much. But if he can steer the bill through the Senate and survive a showdown with the Republican-controlled House, he'll do more than prove that Congress is still capable of big things. He will go a long way toward cementing his role as the next Democratic Senate leader--a job that eluded even the iconic Kennedy.

"My Life's Work"

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