Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer replaced, lamenting that there’s no one ready to step in. Elizabeth Warren has a different approach.
The Massachusetts Democrat is a member of Schumer’s leadership team and is working closely with the Senate minority leader on a policy priority that could fuel the first intra-party fight with President-elect Joe Biden.
A few months before the election, Warren asked Schumer to join her effort to cancel $50,000 of student loan debt for millions of Americans. The president can do it without Congress, she argues. The New York Democrat, who is up for reelection in 2022, was “immediately interested.”
“Chuck Schumer has a hard job. And he has to confront the fact every single day that Mitch McConnell controls what gets a vote on the floor of the Senate,” Warren said in an interview. Student loan cancellation is an “example of Chuck’s good partnership on things we’d like to get done. And using every tool available to us to make it happen.”
Recruiting Schumer on student loans shows how Warren will use her sway in Democrats’ impending internal debates as a centrist Biden confronts a narrowly divided Congress. Unlike some liberals, Warren also plays the inside game to shape policy — and picks her spots carefully.
Along with a seat at Schumer’s leadership table, Warren now has a presidential run under her belt plus a progressive record that includes hard-fought battles both with her own party and the GOP.
She even secured language in a critical defense bill to rename bases honoring Confederate soldiers over President Donald Trump’s opposition; his veto is on the verge of being overridden for the first time of his presidency. It’s not Medicare for All or the Green New Deal, but she says it exemplifies what Democrats can accomplish during divided government: “It’s the right side of history.”
Yet Warren warns her party needs to act quickly on things like student loan debt to make sure anti-Trump voters don’t see Democrats running a gridlocked Washington that does little to improve their daily lives. Biden’s view on this is less clear: he recently told several newspaper columnists that it was “pretty questionable” that he has the authority to cancel all that debt.
“Democrats need to deliver,” Warren said. “No matter what. We have to use every tool, and we need to use it early, boldly, confidently, and unapologetically.”
Warren is widely recognized in the Senate for her aggressive push to rename bases, working closely with Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) in the House.
“She realized what the interests were of Republicans and why we could and should stand on principle,” Brown said of his work with her. “This is real commitment on Elizabeth Warren’s part.”
But some blanch at her tactics: Senate Armed Services Chair Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Warren is “anti-defense” for ultimately voting against the bill because the defense spending was too high.
“I’ve always questioned her consistency, because she’ll sometimes get real tied up in one of these issues, then she turns around and votes against it,” Inhofe said in an interview. “I don’t know what makes her tick.”
It’s something everyone is assessing as Warren fully recalibrates for the long haul in the Senate. The progressive second-term senator tends to exhibit a more pragmatic streak than when she came into the Senate eight years ago. She’s also got boundless energy and scorns Zoom, preferring to pace endlessly on telephone calls.
“That’s what I hate about Zoom. You’ve got to plunk your fanny in a chair,” she says. She’s also picked up a unique pandemic-era habit of recording her own interviews with congressional reporters.
Despite falling short in her bid for the White House or a Cabinet slot, Warren says she’s legitimately excited about her role in the Senate as a power center under a new administration. Some privately wonder if she might contemplate a bid for party leadership, given her national reputation and standing with the party’s left.
Warren’s current role on Schumer’s 10-person leadership team is opaque, with the title of vice chair of the Democratic Caucus. She says she cares little about a promotion: “I lived in the academic world, right? Where it was all about titles. And not the same focus on making change.”
“This is a moment when it’s possible to make a difference,” she said. “The Confederate base naming is a real difference. And we got that done in a Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate with Donald Trump sitting in the White House.”
Republicans have tried to vilify Warren, warning in the fall that Biden could make her Treasury secretary. That dream evaporated when Democrats failed to take the Senate in November. And though she has no qualms antagonizing the GOP, her real influence is within her own party.
Her approach differs from the antagonistic style of the House’s “Squad” or even Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also serves on Schumer’s leadership team. Sanders has criticized Biden’s Cabinet for lacking progressives and joined Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to aggressively push for stimulus checks. Now Sanders is delaying the veto override vote on the defense bill unless the Senate votes on larger checks.
Warren previously signed onto Sanders’ letter to Democratic leaders requesting more aid but stayed out of a debate this month between Sanders and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) over the contours of the stimulus bill. She spoke with Schumer about the legislation’s direction but ceded the spotlight to Sanders, who even briefly threatened a shutdown.
“They just come at it different,” Manchin explained. “Elizabeth probably has probably the same perceptions of what needs to be done. But she keeps working on it differently.”
Sanders declined to comment on their relationship, which was tested during their fierce presidential primary contest.
Warren has so far held her fire as Biden fills out his administration. That doesn’t mean she isn’t ready to strike if Biden hires lobbyists or someone she views as improper.
“Personnel is policy. So getting the right people in those slots is really important. And it’s not only the top slots, it’s also the deputies and assistants,” Warren said.
Does any appointment bother her so far? “Let me leave it at that there’s some people I need to talk to,” she said.
Warren’s occasional jabs at her own party usually stem from her desire to take on Wall Street. Soon after she was elected in 2012, she took on a Democratic compromise on student loan rates. “This whole system stinks,” she declared. Then in 2015 she tanked Antonio Weiss’ nomination to be a top Obama Treasury official because of his ties to the financial industry.
Then she battled with moderate Democrats in 2018 over a banking deregulation bill as they pursued reelection in red states. It resulted in painful internal debates, with Warren publicly lamenting “some of our teammates don’t even show up for the fight.”
But it’s now in the rear view as Democrats prepare to move back into the White House: “That fight has been fought,” said Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).
“She doesn’t make stuff up. She believes in what she believes in,” said Tester, who was on opposite sides of Warren on the banking debate.
Warren’s stayed below the radar of late despite her occasional intra-party fights, but is setting herself up as a team player. She raised money for the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and worked as a surrogate for Biden, making fall stops in Wisconsin, Minnesota and neighboring New Hampshire.
She may end up as a check on the Biden administration from the left. But Warren is signaling she’d rather that Biden just take her advice.
“No one should be surprised about what I fight for, or how hard I will fight,” said Warren, declining to detail her private conversations with Biden. “For me, it’s always about finding the way to be most effective.”