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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But Toomey worried that Schumer's presence at the press conference to unveil the deal would impede his ability to sell it to fellow conservatives. Manchin pulled Schumer aside at a 50th-birthday party for MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, on a rooftop terrace overlooking the Capitol, and asked him to step out of the spotlight. The New Yorker complied, handing the freshmen the reins. "Twenty years ago," he says, "I never would have done that."

The measure still failed by five votes. Schumer's push to revive the deal has been hampered by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose ad campaign targeting Senators who voted against background checks could imperil the party's majority. "Frankly, I don't think Bloomberg's ads are effective," Schumer says, adding that he's glad the mayor has emerged as a counterweight to the NRA.

It is on immigration that Schumer has most broken his own mold. The deal he struck last month with Utah Republican Orrin Hatch is a case in point. With a fast-growing tech hub in Utah, Hatch sought amendments that would make it easier for high-tech companies to hire skilled foreigners. Labor groups opposed the idea because of concerns that this could displace qualified American workers. But Schumer wanted to galvanize the tech industry to lobby for the bill. So he negotiated a compromise. "We needed high tech to win over Republican votes when we go to the floor," he explains. "Now they're going out and knocking on doors. CEOs of high-tech companies are calling Republicans who are undecided." Schumer was also gambling that Hatch, a dealmaker by nature, could bring other Republicans into the fold. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, has since joined the coalition.

As he has courted the right, Schumer has tried to keep the left from revolting. The Congressional Black Caucus, a reliable liberal bloc, threatened to withhold support for the measure because of fears that it would curb immigration from Africa and the Caribbean. So Schumer devised an amendment to make some immigrants from those regions eligible for another class of visa. And Schumer has been a steady emissary to a group of 16 female Democratic Senators whose age and outlook often put them at odds with the party's 73-year-old leader, Harry Reid of Nevada. "Chuck is very interested in your unique perspective, and pretty tolerant" when it skirts the party line, says freshman Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, one of four Democrats to oppose expanded background checks.

Schumer has at times been ruthless about protecting compromises. Last month Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy wanted to amend the immigration bill to enable gay Americans to sponsor their foreign-born partners for green cards. Schumer supports the idea and had promised representatives of Immigration Equality, a group that lobbies for immigration benefits for gay couples, that he would ensure its inclusion. But Republicans warned it would blow up the bill. When the proposal came up in committee, Schumer opposed it.

"He looked me in the eye and said he would stand with us," says Meghan Austin of Immigration Equality, who recalls Schumer's breaking down in tears during a meeting at which he pledged his support. "Then he decided to use us as a bargaining chip."

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