In the late 1980's, when Chuck Schumer was in his fourth term in the House, Rep. George Miller—Schumer's landlord and roommate—brought a California freshman to a dinner gathering. "You've gotta meet this new member," Miller said, according to a source close to Schumer. "She's going to be the first female speaker."
It turned out Miller was right about Nancy Pelosi. With Schumer now in line to succeed retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid—and Pelosi giving no hint that she plans to step down—the pair whose relationship began at that dinner nearly three decades ago looks set to guide their party together.
As young House colleagues, Schumer and Pelosi were members of a tight-knit Democratic "dinner gang" that met regularly to discuss politics and life in Washington. "She's known him extremely well for a very long time," said a source close to Pelosi. "They talk regularly. ... There's a good amount of coordination there already."
The two have remained close since those early days, Democrats say. "The fact that they've dealt with each other and worked with each other—they've been involved in some of the most critical issues of the last half-century," said former Sen. Chris Dodd, another member of the dinner gang. "That's a great way to understand each other, to get along with each other, to be tough and be honest about what you can or cannot do. Those prior experiences really are critical for building a relationship on which you go forward."
That's not to say they won't have differences. They've split on some foreign policy issues, including the 2002 resolution authorizing war in Iraq (Schumer voted for it, Pelosi against). And on Wednesday, Pelosi issued a statement criticizing Sen. Bob Corker's legislation to let Congress block a nuclear deal with Iran. Schumer supports Corker's bill.
Pelosi publicly rebuked Schumer in November when he questioned Democrats' timing in the 2010 push for health care reform. But their allies say that's just an example of their ability to be candid with one another, not an indication of bad blood between the two. "That's part of the frankness," said the source close to Schumer. "They are close and have worked together a lot, so it's a dispute among family members more than any kind of long-term adversarial situation."
Pelosi is a reliable liberal from one of the country's most left-leaning districts in San Francisco. Schumer, the New Yorker, represents a complex array of interests, including Wall Street, and is seen as more of a moderate.
"They're both obviously very intense people, but they both have the same goal," said Brendan Daly, a former Pelosi staffer. "In small meetings, they're very candid. They're not going to pull punches."
In terms of strategy, some describe Schumer's legislative approach as transactional, while Pelosi's is more ideological. In part, that's a function of their roles; the structure of the Senate demands more deal-making to get things done. "The Senate is inherently a more transactional place, because you need so many votes just to go to the bathroom," said the source close to Pelosi.
Some of their friends say they're excited to see what the partnership between two of their party's savviest operators will produce. "It's going to be the best team we've had in a very long time," said former Rep. Sam Gejdenson, a fellow dinner-gang attendee and roommate of Schumer's. "If there were ever two people to lead the House and Senate Democrats to work together, these are the two."
That's because Pelosi and Schumer are both plugged in to the needs of their caucuses, members say. "She's got a great read on people, as does Chuck," Dodd said. "They know their colleagues well, and that's really important as a leader. ... Both of these individuals are encyclopedic when it comes to appreciating the importance of that. They will both be very knowledgeable when it comes to what the tipping points are within their membership. That is absolutely critical when you're trying to decide what will work and what won't work."
Schumer, he said, is perhaps the only Democratic senator with the cell-phone numbers of every colleague, while Pelosi is known for keeping her caucus tightly unified. "Nancy is one of the few leaders who has the courage to tell people in her caucus no," Gejdenson added.
The two have worked together before. They teamed up to work on the 1994 assault-weapons ban, and allies say they consulted closely during the 2013 battle for immigration reform. And Schumer helped Pelosi push for the creation of Presidio National Park in San Francisco.
The two spoke several times a month even before Reid announced his retirement, said the source close to Schumer, and she was among the first to congratulate him when it became clear he would be the next leader.
"It's not like they're people who don't know each other who are suddenly going to be thrown on the playground together," said Phil Singer, a former Schumer staffer. "I would be very surprised if they didn't get along famously. Whenever Chuck brings her up, it's always 'Nancy this, Nancy that.' It's a very good relationship."
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.