Debt Limit Crisis Poses First Big Test for New Democratic Leader
Hakeem Jeffries, the New Yorker who succeeded Nancy Pelosi this year as the House’s top Democrat, is getting a trial by fire.
Reporting from Capitol Hill
Just six months into his tenure as the House minority leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries faces a formidable challenge: selling his fellow Democrats on the budget deal negotiated behind closed doors between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, without much input from his end.
Negotiators reached a deal on Saturday to raise the debt ceiling and avert a potential default that could come as early as June 5, but Mr. Jeffries had no idea how many votes he might ultimately have to deliver for the package because he had heard nothing from Republicans about how many defections they expected once the measure hit the floor.
The situation is particularly galling to Democrats because, while it is hard-right Republicans who have pushed the nation to the brink of default by refusing to raise the debt limit without spending cuts, they are all but certain to oppose the compromise that has been hammered out. Even if Republicans meet their threshold of winning over a majority of their members for the package, it will probably still require backing from scores of Democrats to pass.
“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 instance in order to satisfy the needs of right-wing ideologues,” Mr. Jeffries said in an interview.
The struggle over the debt limit is the first major political and policy fight in 20 years in which 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 getting something of a trial by fire, with the global economy and the retirement accounts of millions of Americans on the line.
Of the four congressional leaders, Mr. Jeffries has the least power, but he might also have the greatest challenge, because it is clear that House Democrats will be essential to pushing the debt limit bill over the finish line from their minority position in the House. Though Mr. Jeffries had little direct sway in the talks, Mr. McCarthy is well aware that he cannot hope to prevail if House Democrats reject it en masse.
Progressives previously signaled that they were not inclined to support any deal that cut domestic spending or imposed stricter work requirements on public benefit programs.
While he has not been in the room, Mr. Jeffries has been in regular conversation with the White House about what is transpiring, with Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House chief of staff, serving as a major point of contact. Mr. Jeffries credited the administration with engaging with a wide array of House members to prepare them for what is ahead.
“They’ve been open, honest and accessible with House Democrats across the ideological spectrum,” he said.
House Democrats have grumbled that the White House remained too quiet as the talks progressed, not wanting to knock them off track, while Mr. McCarthy and his lieutenants gathered regularly with reporters, gaining some advantage on the public relations front. Mr. Jeffries moved to fill that gap in recent days with a series of appearances he used to assail far-right Republicans, whom he accused of trying to crash the economy for political reasons.
“They’ve decided that either they are able to extract extreme and painful cuts that will hurt everyday Americans or crash the economy and benefit politically in 2024,” he said. “That is unreasonable, it’s cruel, it’s reckless, and it’s extreme. But it is the modern-day Republican Party in the House of Representatives.”
Mr. Jeffries, who has so far had a working relationship with Mr. McCarthy, was not ready to extend that criticism to the speaker.
“It’s not clear to me that it includes McCarthy,” he said, referring to the group of Republicans he viewed as hoping for a politically advantageous default. “I think McCarthy has a very difficult job in terms of corralling the most extreme elements of his conference. But the extreme elements have said they don’t believe House Republicans should be negotiating with the hostage they have taken.”
As Mr. Jeffries navigated the debt limit showdown, senior House Democrats said he was able to draw from a reservoir of good will and trust from his membership.
“He’s clearly on top of these issues,” said Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the veteran lawmaker and top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “He understands the politics of where we are, and I think there is pretty broad support in the caucus for the posture he’s adopted.”
“He responds, he answers questions, and he tells you the truth,” said Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, the senior Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Although it appears that a deal has been struck, Mr. Jeffries has one potential trick up his sleeve should that fall apart and a catastrophic default appear imminent. He and his team quietly prepared a special petition to force a debt-limit increase vote if all else fails. All 213 Democrats have now signed the petition, leaving them five short of the 218 votes needed. He called this past week for moderate Republican lawmakers to bridge the gap.
“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.”
Carl Hulse is chief Washington correspondent and a veteran of more than three decades of reporting in the capital. @hillhulse