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Congress was careening toward the debt ceiling deadline and a key procedural vote was short on votes, when Rep. Hakeem Jeffries made a move. Standing on the House floor, the minority leader from New York silently held up a green card.
It signaled to scores of fellow Democrats to approach the dais and turn in their green voting cards, providing the “ayes” to push a compromise forward. The wait forced Republicans to put up votes for the deal, while also making clear that Democrats were the ones providing the majority of the muscle to avert a potentially disastrous default.
“Well played,” House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recounted in a recent interview. “I would have done the same thing.” Democrats, McCarthy added, “over-performed” their expected vote count after negotiations between himself and President Joe Biden.
The moment in late May was the culmination of the first major challenge Jeffries, 52, faced as successor to House Democrats’ longtime power center, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) And it was a rare chance to exert influence in a chamber where the majority typically runs roughshod.
Jeffries’ allies say the fight showed the steady demeanor and bridge-building approach of the newest, least experienced leader in Congress.
“What stands out is projecting calm,” said Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), chair of the center-left New Democrats. She’s never heard Jeffries raise his voice. “His calm sense that we have a plan, that it’s under control, that people shouldn’t overreact, they should just be steady.”
Six months into his tenure, interviews with more than a dozen House Democrats depict Jeffries not as a leader bending the caucus to his will, but as one seeking threads of consensus. In conversations across the party’s ideological, geographical and demographic spectrum, the word “listener” came up nearly every time.
“First and foremost, Leader Jeffries is a listener,” said Rep. Steve Horsford (D-Nev.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “He spends a lot of time listening to where the members are, what they’re feeling, what they’re hearing from their constituents and it’s why he has been so effective.”
Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a close McCarthy ally who helped negotiate the debt deal, drew a biting contrast to Pelosi. “What I hear from rank-and-file Democrats is that he is a much more engaging leader and less of a dictator. And I think that many of them appreciate that.”
Even McCarthy used the term listening.
“He’s a very likable person. He’s highly intelligent. He will listen, right? And you can tell he’s sitting and he’s thinking,” McCarthy said. “He’s new to being the leader right? And I’ve been in leadership a little longer. So I might be a little faster on certain things, about willing to do certain things, and I think he’s bringing his conference along.”
But bigger tests loom for Jeffries, along with potentially more influence.
As McCarthy wrestles with his slim, unruly majority, Democratic support may again be needed to approve must-pass appropriations, agriculture, and defense bills later this year. Even more starkly, next year’s elections could make Jeffries a history-making House speaker: Already the the first Black person to head a Congressional caucus, he’d become the first to lead either chamber. But if he falls short, it could raise questions about why he was unable to overtake the GOP’s tiny majority.
“Hakeem Jeffries and the leadership know that the ultimate benchmark is winning, and that we have to take back the House,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), though he added that Jeffries would get more than just one election cycle. “That ultimately is the yardstick for judging leadership in the minority.”
In some ways the debt debate was a relatively easy lift: Biden took the lead, and it always seemed likely a critical mass of Democrats would support a bill negotiated by their own president. There haven’t been many other major challenges yet for Jeffries, particularly with Republicans fumbling through their own divisions.
As House minority leader, “your job essentially is to vote ‘no,’” said Doug Heye, a former senior adviser to one-time House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
That’s given Jeffries time to grow into his new role.
A generational shift
The former lawyer and New York state assemblyman had already been part of House Democratic leadership, as head of their communications arm and then caucus chair. But taking over for Pelosi this year, after just a decade in Congress, was a huge step.
“It’s impossible to replace Michael Jordan,” Jeffries, a die-hard New York Knicks fan, said in an interview at Junior’s, a landmark Brooklyn diner with a vast selection of cheesecakes. “That’s a foundational understanding of the approach that needed to be taken as we transitioned from Speaker Pelosi to the next generation of House Democratic leadership.”
He described the work as a team effort, built off his longstanding partnership with the party’s other new leaders, Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and caucus chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.).
For some Democrats, Jeffries’ newness is a positive. Much of the caucus has served alongside him as peers, rather than looking up to him as an authority figure, said Rep. Joe Morelle (D-N.Y.).
“If you came here when Nancy was speaker, I mean, Nancy was on a pedestal,” said Morelle, who also served with Jeffries in the New York state legislature. Lawmakers who joined Congress in recent years have served alongside Jeffries as a contemporary. “He’s more their generation.”
Jeffries’ job as the top Democrat has put him in the same rooms as McCarthy, who has been the top House Republican since 2019, and Senate leaders Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who have led their caucuses since 2017 and 2007, respectively. Pelosi helmed the Democratic caucus for two decades, building a reputation as a legendary tactician who held a tight grip on her caucus.
That’s why it’s important that Jeffries has reached out to his caucus’ many factions and tried to understand their varied viewpoints, said Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-N.J.).
“Leader Jeffries has got to establish himself,” said Sherrill, a moderate who praised his accessibility and early leadership. “I think he wants to understand the caucus very well and how we’re successful, but I also know he needs to do that, because he has got to sort of, you know, show the receipts of what he can accomplish. And that’s going to take some work, and that’s going to take bringing people along.”
She said Jeffries represented the caucus well during the debt ceiling negotiations, but added, “his predecessor set a very high bar.”
Jeffries’ calm demeanor helped during the heated debt ceiling fight, said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). But while stressing his support for Jeffries’ leadership, the former Progressive Caucus chairman also urged a more aggressive posture.
“We need a little more punching,” he said.
Few Democrats offered any direct criticism of their new leader, though some grumbled privately about Jeffries being cut out of the Biden-McCarthy debt negotiations.
“People were outraged that he wasn’t in the room, and when he heard people say that they wanted to see him speak up more he did that,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.). “He was walking a very delicate road because it was the president doing our negotiating.”
Jeffries aides said he had constant visibility into the talks, and that after a deal was cut, he arranged a series of briefings with senior administration officials so his members could ask detailed questions before voting. That reflected Jeffries’ broader approach.
“The most important thing that we can continue to do is talk with each other, engage in dialogue when we are confronting a big issue early and often,” he said, “and work towards finding the highest common denominator.”
From a Changing Brooklyn
Jeffries arrived last Sunday afternoon at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church, situated on the edge of two neighborhoods, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and the gentrifying Clinton Hill. The boundaries, locals said, have blurred as redevelopment has stretched outward. Nearby, multi-million dollar brownstones and airy restaurants butted up against corner stores and decades-old affordable housing.
Standing at the pulpit in a navy suit and pink tie, Jeffries told the congregation about his childhood in nearby Crown Heights where he “managed to somehow survive the violence of the crack-cocaine epidemic,” only to now “greet you as the highest ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives.”
The churchgoers erupted in cheers.
Jeffries’ background in Brooklyn — and the vast changes the borough has undergone during his lifetime — illustrate his ability to move between worlds. He grew up amid spasms of violence in the 1980’s, but later got a law degree from New York University and worked in the lofty and lucrative realm of big law, with the international firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.
He represents a diverse, deep blue district where the median household income, about $55,000 a year, falls well below the national average, yet he’s also cultivated ties to the business and donor classes. He brought in $33.4 million for fellow Democrats in his first quarter as their leader, a shade more than Pelosi did at the same point of her last term as leader. The biggest shares of fund-raising for his own campaigns has come from individuals and committees aligned with influential New York industries such as the banking sector, real estate, and legal world, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks political fund-raising.
On the House floor he routinely quotes the lyrics of the hip-hop greats who emerged from Brooklyn during his youth.
“He has traveled in a number of circles that he can move in and out of with grace and with ease,” Kuster said. “He can navigate differences.”
‘Biggie Smalls and Gladys Knight’
Jeffries’ approach to House leadership, according to a wide range of Democrats, mirrors his ability to join up the disparate parts of his background.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), a close Jeffries ally, called the Democratic leader “the perfect bridge” between generations.
“He can talk about old school music and he can also talk about today’s hip-hop,” Meeks said. “Biggie Smalls and Gladys Knight.”
“He’s a remarkable bridge builder. He’s really intentional about how he brings all perspectives to the table,” said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. “His perspective is ultimately built on first listening to all the other perspectives and points of view and then he forms his opinion.”
Jeffries meets weekly with the ranking Democrats on each committee and has another sit-down, dubbed “The Crescendo,” that began under Pelosi and includes the heads of the various caucuses, including progressives and Blue Dogs, the individual caucuses for Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific American lawmakers, Women’s Caucus and others.
Jeffries typically opens the conversations, Morelle said, but then sits back, listens, and “takes a lot of notes.”
Texts or calls to Jeffries or his leadership team get quick replies, Sherrill said.
“And it’s not just a ‘Thanks for your input,’” she said. “It really is, ‘Hey, let’s talk more about that, find me on the floor.’”
And Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), the Congressional Progressive Caucus whip, said Jeffries has put in time and effort “to get to know all of the freshmen members and to make sure that we all feel supported.”
Listening and Learning
Jeffries said he believes that by listening “you can learn something from everybody.”
“And when you learn,” he said, “you can proceed in a more enlightened fashion as it relates to solving the problems that we are being asked to confront.”
He’s even in close contact with McCarthy. The two regularly text or call, without staff go-betweens. It’s a “1,000 percent” difference, McCarthy said, from his famously icy relationship with Pelosi.
Significantly, even as Jeffries blasts “extreme MAGA Republicans” he hasn’t personally targeted McCarthy, said Matthew Green, a politics professor at Catholic University in Washington. That could be meaningful as Congress tries to get must-pass bills through the House.
“It’s important because McCarthy does have these divisions,” Green said. “So you want the leaders of the parties to have the ability to talk when it matters, when there’s a crisis, when you have urgent legislation.”
Some liberals have criticized Jeffries for being too close to donors and big business. At one point, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) reportedly considered backing a primary challenger against her fellow New Yorker, Green noted. Progressives interviewed for this story, however, generally praised Jeffries’ willingness to listen to their views, and give them space to send a message by voting “no” on the debt deal.
“Where 50 of us didn’t think it was a good deal, there was no recrimination,” said Grijalva. “It was allowing — not allowing, but having — the kind of necessary discussion.”
If Jeffries rises even farther and becomes speaker, he’ll face bigger challenges. There’s a difference between leading the opposition, and trying to govern with a multi-faceted caucus.
As minority leader, “you’ve got it pretty good,” McCarthy said with a laugh. “You just vote no.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan Tamari at email@example.com