WASHINGTON — Just six months into his tenure as House Minority Leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, DN.Y., for a formidable challenge: selling his fellow Democrats on a budget deal negotiated behind closed doors between President Joe Biden and speaker Kevin McCarthy, without much input on his part.
Complicating matters is the fact that, less than a week after a possible default, Jeffries has no idea how many votes he would ultimately need to provide for such a package, having heard nothing from the Republicans about how much defection they expect if a measure hits the floor.
The situation is particularly troubling for the Democrats, because while it is the hard-right Republicans who have pushed the nation to the brink of collapse by refusing to raise the debt limit without austerity, they are almost certain to oppose any final compromise. Even if Republicans meet their threshold of winning a majority of their members to the package, it could still require the support of dozens of Democrats to pass.
Sign up for The New York Times’ The Morning newsletter
“House Republicans have not been clear on how many votes they think they can produce,” Jeffries said in an interview. If Republicans are counting on a significant Democratic vote to pass the plan, he warned, they’d better come to an agreement with the White House on a deal that House Democrats can swallow — even if they don’t like it.
“I can say with great clarity that if dozens of Democratic votes are going to be needed in the House, we can’t achieve an extreme resolution to meet the needs of right-wing ideologues in this case,” Jeffries said.
The deadlock over the debt limit is the first major political and policy battle in 20 years in which House Democrats have not been led into battle by one Pelosi. Jeffries, a 53-year-old, six-term legislator from Brooklyn, followed Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democratic leader since 2003 and twice speaker, in January unopposed. Now he’s getting 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, Jeffries has the least power, but he also has perhaps the greatest challenge, as it is clear that House Democrats will be essential to push any debt limit across the finish line from their minority position in the House. While Jeffries has had little direct influence in the talks, McCarthy is well aware that he cannot strike a deal and hopes to prevail if House Democrats reject it en masse.
With little transparency in the talks, Jeffries’ troops this week have become increasingly worried about the possibility that Biden will strike an unsatisfactory deal to raise the debt limit — after months of saying he wouldn’t make a deal at all — and then call the Democrats to embrace it.
“A lot of fear,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “We know nothing.”
Progressives have indicated they are not inclined to support a deal that cuts domestic spending or imposes tougher work requirements on public-interest programs — both central elements of a deal that White House officials and congressional Republicans have tried to rule out.
Jeffries said he remains confident that Biden will not give the shop away and will emerge from the talks with a deal acceptable to enough House Democrats that can be passed as long as McCarthy, R-Calif., and his colleagues do their part .
“I have complete confidence in the Biden administration’s ability to lead the charge and protect democratic values and ordinary Americans,” Jeffries said. “And we’ll be there to support that effort if needed.”
While not in the room, Jeffries is in regular conversation with the White House about what is happening, with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients serving as a key point of contact. He credited the government with engaging with a wide range of House members to prepare them for what is to come.
“They have been open, honest and accessible to House Democrats across the ideological spectrum, and that will serve them well at the end of the day once a resolution is reached,” he said.
House Democrats grumble that the White House has remained too quiet to avoid disrupting talks, while McCarthy and his lieutenants regularly met with reporters to gain some public relations advantage. Jeffries has begun to fill that gap in recent days with a series of appearances he used to attack far-right Republicans, whom he accuses of crashing the economy for political reasons.
“They have decided that they can either implement extreme and painful austerity measures that will harm ordinary Americans or crash the economy and take political advantage in 2024,” he said. “That’s unreasonable, it’s cruel, it’s reckless and it’s extreme. But it is the modern Republican Party in the House of Representatives.”
Jeffries, who has had a working relationship with McCarthy to date, was unwilling to relay that criticism to the speaker.
“It’s not clear to me that McCarthy is included,” he said, referring to the group of Republicans he believes are hoping for a politically beneficial bankruptcy. “I think McCarthy has a very difficult job of rallying the most extreme elements of his conference. But the extreme elements have said they do not believe House Republicans should be negotiating with the hostage they have taken.”
As Jeffries navigates the debt limit confrontation, senior House Democrats said he can draw on a reservoir of goodwill and confidence from his membership.
“He is clearly aware of these issues,” said Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, the veteran legislator and 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 stance he’s taken.”
“He answers, he answers questions, and he tells you the truth,” said Connecticut Representative Rosa DeLauro, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Jeffries has a possible trick up his sleeve when talks fail and catastrophic bankruptcy threatens. He and his team quietly prepared a special petition to force an increase in the debt limit if all else fails. All 213 Democrats have now signed the petition, falling five short of the 218 votes needed. As the clock ticked down this week, he increased calls for Republicans to run, though there’s no indication yet that this will happen.
Jeffries called it an opportunity for Republicans to prove him wrong and show that they are not all prisoners of the far right.
“Unfortunately, so-called moderates in the House Republican Conference have not shown the courage necessary to break with the most extreme wing of their party,” he said. “Now is the time to do it.”
circa 2023 The New York Times Company