By Seung Min Kim / The Washington Post
WASHINGTON — At a 1994 news conference, a passionate Nancy Pelosi spoke critically against extending China’s trading privileges with the United States because of Beijing’s record on human rights, a cause that had pitted a bipartisan congressional coalition against President Bill Clinton.
Among those who accompanied Pelosi as she detailed her opposition was then-Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who couldn’t help but admire the oratory skills of the congresswoman from San Francisco.
“She’s so good,” Schumer murmured to an aide afterward as they left the meeting room in the House offices. “Man, she’s so good.”
Nearly a quarter-century later, Pelosi and Schumer are again working in tandem to battle a president, on a far bigger scale, as President Donald Trump and his Republican administration tries to wear down Democrats until they give Trump money for his prized border wall amid a partial government shutdown that has no end in sight.
No two principals in the shutdown fight have presented a more united front than “Chuck and Nancy,” as Trump has dubbed them. The two leaders have refused to make any key strategic moves in the ongoing shutdown fight without consulting each other and have become so simpatico that their staffs now regularly joke that the two are finishing each other’s sentences.
The two Democratic leaders — together, of course — delivered the rebuttal to Trump’s first Oval Office address as he made the case for his controversial border wall, continuing a stream of joint statements and appearances as they hold firm against the administration’s immigration demands.
“We are only strong if we’re unified. They understand that better than anyone,” said Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, a member of Schumer’s leadership team. “They trust each other, and therefore the caucuses from the different chambers are able to work well together.”
In their response, Pelosi and Schumer took turns chastising Trump for spreading misinformation in making his case for a border wall while insisting that the federal government should not be used as leverage for a wall that remains unpopular with the broader public.
“President Trump must stop holding the American people hostage, must stop manufacturing a crisis, and must reopen the government,” Pelosi said.
Schumer added: “There is an obvious solution: separate the shutdown from the arguments over border security. There is bipartisan legislation-— supported by Democrats and Republicans — to reopen government while allowing debate over border security to continue.”
Pelosi, 78, and Schumer, 68, are both veteran lawmakers with roots in the House who ultimately rose to the highest levels of party leadership in the Capitol and have worked closely under the Trump presidency to protect the Affordable Care Act and limit Democratic defections on the Republican tax bill that became law in late 2017.
Their relationship dates to at least 1987, when Schumer was a roommate of then-Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a longtime Pelosi ally who retired in 2015. In addition to sharing a townhouse on D Street SE, Miller, Schumer and then-Reps. Leon Panetta, D-Calif., and Martin Russo, D-Ill., would hold regular Tuesday night dinners and, on occasion, invite other lawmakers to join them.
One such guest that year was a freshly elected lawmaker by the name of Pelosi, whom Miller brought to the dinner club and said, as he introduced her: She’s going to be the first female speaker.
Schumer has “always remembered this story,” a person close to the senator said. “It’s something that sticks out in his mind.”
Two decades later, Miller would prove correct. In another 10 years, Pelosi and Schumer would become the respective Democratic chamber leaders and find themselves in a bitter shutdown fight against an administration determined to drive a rift between them as it puts forward its own competing messages.
Administration officials, believing Schumer would be more amendable to a deal to end the shutdown, have tried to isolate Pelosi and depict her as the intractable figure, particularly as she waited to be formally elected speaker again.
After meeting with Schumer and Vice President Mike Pence immediately after the shutdown began, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told Fox News, “My gut was that he was really interested in doing a deal and coming to some sort of compromise.”
“The more we’re hearing this week is that it’s Nancy Pelosi who’s preventing that from happening,” Mulvaney said during the interview.
Aides dismiss any notion of daylight between Pelosi and Schumer, and there’s been no public evidence that would suggest a split.
Indeed, it’s been the opposite.
The two have talked several times a day since the shutdown battle began, aides say, mostly from their cellphones and so frequently that they are often relaying updates to their staff, not the other way around. Schumer, who is famous for having memorized the cellphone numbers for every member of the Senate Democratic caucus, has also committed Pelosi’s digits to memory.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., met privately with Schumer on Dec. 18 to offer him a deal on behalf of the White House to stave off a shutdown – passing a negotiated funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security as well as an additional $1 billion for the administration’s various non-wall immigration policies. Schumer declined to commit on the spot and instead called Pelosi to his Capitol office, where the two agreed the offer was unacceptable, according to an official familiar with those conversations. Pelosi left Schumer’s office and promptly told the reporters who had assembled outside that they would not take that deal.
“Remember that they fought a lot of battles together in the ’90s,” one senior Democratic aide said, citing as an example the Brady gun legislation, for which Schumer was the lead lawmaker and Pelosi helped whipped votes. “They’ve just known each other for a very, very long time. That helps this relationship along quite a bit.”
The two Democratic leaders have also prepared in-depth before White House meetings, another of which will occur on Wednesday afternoon with the eight top congressional leaders. Pelosi and Schumer – along with their top deputies, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., – convened before the two Situation Room meetings last week to ensure all the Democratic leaders were on the same page. (Pelosi served chocolate doughnuts at the Friday meeting in her speaker’s office, held around breakfast time.)
The decision to deliver Tuesday’s rebuttal together was also a joint one, made when Pelosi was speaking to Schumer on the phone as she traveled back to San Francisco from Sacramento after watching newly elected California governor Gavin Newsom, D, be sworn in.
“He promised to keep government shutdown for ‘months or years’ — no matter whom it hurts,” Pelosi said as she concluded her remarks. “That’s just plain wrong.”