The debt ceiling is the first big test for Hakeem Jeffries, the top Democrat in the House

By | May 25, 2023

Just six months into his tenure as House Minority Leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries faces a formidable challenge: Selling his fellow Democrats on a budget deal negotiated behind closed doors between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, without much input on his part.

Further complicating matters is the fact that, less than a week after a potential default, Mr. Jeffries has no idea how many votes he will ultimately have to deliver for such a package because he has not heard from Republicans about how many defections they expect if a target hits the floor.

The situation is particularly vexing for Democrats, because even though Republicans have pushed the nation to the brink of default by refusing to raise the debt limit without spending cuts, they are almost certain to oppose a final compromise. Even if Republicans reach the threshold to win over a majority of members for the package, it may still require the support of many Democrats to pass.

“House Republicans have not provided any clarity on how many votes they think they can actually produce,” Jeffries said in an interview. If Republicans count on a significant number of Democratic votes to pass the plan, he warned, they must reach an agreement with the White House on a deal that House Democrats can swallow — even if they don’t love it.

“I can say with a great deal of clarity that if dozens of Democratic votes in the House will be necessary, we cannot reach an extreme resolution in this case to satisfy the needs of right-wing ideologues,” Jeffries said.

The debt ceiling impasse is the first major political and policy battle in 20 years where House Democrats have not been led into the fray by someone named Pelosi. Mr. Jeffries, a 53-year-old, six-term lawmaker from Brooklyn, succeeded Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader since 2003 and two-time speaker, in January without opposition. Now he is facing something of a trial by fire with the global economy and the retirement accounts of millions of Americans at stake.

Of the four congressional leaders, Mr. Jeffries has the least power, but he may also have the biggest challenge, because it is clear that House Democrats will be critical in pushing any debt limit bill across the finish line from their minority position in the House. . Although Mr. Jeffries has had little direct influence in the talks, Mr. McCarthy is well aware that he cannot make a deal and hopes to prevail if House Democrats reject it en masse.

With little transparency in the talks, Jeffries’ troops have grown increasingly anxious this week about the possibility that Biden will strike an unsatisfactory deal to raise the debt limit – after saying for months that he would not strike a deal at all taken. — and then urge Democrats to embrace it.

“A lot of anxiety,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee. “We know nothing.”

Progressives have signaled they are unwilling to support any deal that cuts domestic spending or imposes stricter work requirements on public benefit programs — both key elements of a deal that White House officials and congressional Republicans have tried to hash out.

Mr. Jeffries says he remains confident that Mr. Biden will not give away the store and will emerge from the talks with a deal palatable to enough House Democrats to approve it as long as Mr. McCarthy, a California Republican, and his colleagues do their part.

“I have every confidence in the Biden administration’s ability to lead the charge and protect democratic values ​​and everyday Americans,” Jeffries said. “And we will be there to support those efforts as needed.”

While not in the room, Mr. Jeffries is in regular conversation with the White House about what’s going on, with Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, as a key point of contact. He credited the administration for engaging with a wide range of members of the House to prepare them for what lies ahead.

“They’ve been open, honest and accessible with House Democrats across the ideological spectrum, and that will serve them well at the end of the day when a resolution is reached,” he said.

House Democrats have lamented that the White House, unwilling to derail negotiations, has remained too quiet while Mr. McCarthy and his lieutenants have regularly met with reporters, gaining some advantages on the public relations front. Mr. Jeffries has moved to fill that gap in recent days with a series of appearances he has used to attack far-right Republicans, whom he accuses of trying to crash the economy for political reasons.

“They have decided that they are either able to pull out extreme and painful cuts that will hurt ordinary Americans or crash the economy and divide politically in 2024,” he said. “It’s unreasonable, it’s cruel, it’s reckless and it’s extreme. But that’s the modern Republican Party in the House of Representatives.”

Mr. Jeffries, who has so far cooperated with Mr. McCarthy, was not ready to extend that criticism to the speaker.

“It’s not clear to me that that includes McCarthy,” he said, referring to the group of Republicans he sees as hoping for a politically advantageous default. “I think McCarthy has a very difficult job of rallying the most extreme elements in his conference. But the extreme elements have said they don’t think House Republicans should negotiate with the hostage they’ve taken.”

As Mr. Jeffries navigates the debt-limit settlement, senior House Democrats say he is able to draw from a reservoir of goodwill and trust from the membership.

“He’s clearly on top of these issues,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the veteran lawmaker and the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “He understands the politics of where we are, and I think there’s pretty broad support in the caucus for the position he’s taken.”

“He answers, he answers questions and he tells you the truth,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Jeffries has one potential trick up his sleeve if negotiations collapse and a catastrophic default appears imminent. He and his team were quietly preparing a special petition to force a debt limit increase vote if all else fails. All 213 Democrats have now signed the petition, and they are five short of the 218 votes needed. As the clock ticked this week, he stepped up his call for Republicans to sign on, though there’s no indication yet that anyone will.

Mr. Jeffries called it a chance for Republicans to prove him wrong and show that not all of them are captives of the far right.

“Unfortunately, so-called moderates in the House Republican Conference have failed to show the courage necessary to break with the most extreme wing of their party,” he said. “Now is the time to do it.”

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