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Schumer argues that GOP resistance left him no choice. "Much as it pains me, I cannot support this amendment if it brings down the bill," he said in an emotional speech. "I'm a politician. That means I have chosen my life's work in the constraints of the system to accomplish as much good as I can. I accept the tough choices."
Schumer has been plotting the opening days of the immigration debate like a football coach scripting a game's opening drive. To make sure they kept reading from the same playbook, the eight negotiators gathered two days after the bill was sent to the full Senate in a room off the chamber floor. The first job: sifting through which floor amendments would lift the bill and which were designed to kill it. The second: finding a path to 70 votes, a formidable majority that Schumer believes will help push the measure through the Republican-controlled House.
By the time the Senate began debate June 11, they were near the 60-vote threshold required to overcome a filibuster. Rounding up 10 more will be trickier. Schumer will enlist the support of lobbying powerhouses to lend a hand: evangelicals, business groups like the Chamber of Commerce and hotel-, landscaping- and agricultural-industry groups eager for a new generation of workers. Within his party, some members question whether Schumer's pursuit of a splashy number has made him too accommodating of Republican demands.
Threading any bill through the House is another matter. Many of its members hail from deep-red districts where the quickest way to earn a primary challenge is to vote for an 867-page bill that was largely written behind closed doors, has been likened to Obamacare and is famous on talk radio for offering "amnesty." House Speaker John Boehner has pledged to let the House "work its will," which means he probably has no idea how it will turn out. The House's efforts to produce its own comprehensive immigration measure have sputtered. One alternative is for the House to pass limited measures to tighten border security and workplace enforcement, send its legislation to a conference with the Senate and refuse to endorse a path to citizenship. Boehner "has got 50 to 100 people who are at the hard right, which is rabidly against immigration," Schumer admits, "but he's the leader of the Republican Party, and he knows that if the Republican Party is blamed for no immigration bill after all this momentum, it will really hurt."
Whether immigration reform is approved or falls short, Schumer is winning the debate inside his party about who the next Democratic leader should be. Having helped choose and elect more than one-third of the current caucus, Schumer is well positioned to ultimately replace Reid, who has led the party for nine years. "I don't mind playing political hardball," he says, "but what I've always wanted to do is legislate." This year Chuck Schumer may prove that he can do both.