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.

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Until recently, Schumer was regarded as a soloist, not a Senator who did well in an ensemble. An old joke in Washington held that the most dangerous place in town is between Schumer and a camera. Colleagues coined a neologism--getting Schumed--for his habit of elbowing them out of the spotlight. He is tall, tireless and unusually well informed across a sweeping array of issues.

In a vast town of hustlers, Schumer's hustle is renowned. In Washington he works from 6 a.m. to midnight, prowling the corridors of the Capitol and the fundraising circuit with an ancient LG flip phone pinned to his ear. At any given moment he is hawking a raft of ideas large and small, from expanded broadband access to better sunscreen standards. On a sparkling day in May, I watched Schumer crisscross the New York City area, holding three press conferences in about three hours to tout Hurricane Sandy recovery measures. At a Long Island pier, he beamed as local officials cracked open a briefcase labeled HURRICANE RELIEF KIT to reveal an image of his face. Schumer was squeezing shoulders and shaking hands when a weathered fishing vessel pulled into the harbor. The anglers on deck began catcalling him. "We're getting you more fluke!" Schumer shouted back. He has a plan for that too. Notes Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf: "No one was ever better at retail politics. No one enjoys it more. And no one is as competitive."

In 2006 and 2008, Schumer ran the campaign committee that raises millions for Senate hopefuls and ushered two classes of Democrats back into the majority. Then he stowed his knives and poured his energy into making peace. His zeal to get things done has both surprised Republican colleagues and confounded their constituents. The conservative base still perceives Schumer as the scariest liberal this side of Nancy Pelosi. Not so, says a senior Republican Senate aide. "He's a big-league negotiator, but he is not a mindless partisan."

After November's election, Schumer teamed up with Republicans like John McCain to dilute Democrats' proposal to overhaul the filibuster, which the GOP has wielded to grind the Senate to a standstill. The partnership carried over into the immigration debate. "McCain and I didn't like each other," Schumer recalls. But they became friends. When they visited an Arizona border outpost over Passover, McCain brought the matzo. "I don't like the far right," Schumer says. "And I don't like the far left. Because I think they expect they have a monopoly on wisdom, and they don't even attempt to look at the other side."

On gun control, Schumer spent weeks negotiating with Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a conservative nicknamed Dr. No, over a deal to expand background checks. When those talks stalled over whether private dealers would be required to keep records of their gun sales, Schumer threw his support behind compromise language reached by Manchin and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey. It was weaker than most Democrats wanted, but Schumer felt a pair of Senators with sterling grades from the NRA would be model ambassadors for what could become the first major federal gun law in a generation.

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