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Kevin McCarthy united a party last week. It just wasn’t his own.
In 15 ballots over more than four days, House Democrats logged hundreds of votes for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) as Republicans split on whether to give McCarthy (R-Calif.) the speaker’s gavel. With the exception of a handful of absences, not a single Democrat defected to help Republicans.
Indeed, Jeffries in his first speech as minority leader from the rostrum early Saturday morning made a point to thank the caucus “for their unanimous support.”
“I want to say that that showing of strength is not for any one particular individual,” Jeffries said. “It will be a showing of strength throughout the 118th Congress, unanimity of purpose on behalf of the American people.”
Democrats hope to remain united as Republicans begin work on their legislative agenda this week, several Democratic lawmakers told Bloomberg Government. The strategy will force McCarthy to keep his unruly caucus in line or deal with Democrats if he wants to pass any legislation.
Rep. Robert Garcia (D-Calif.), the president of the freshman class, said Democrats’ unity also served as a “contrast” to the Republican divisions ahead of elections that determine control of Congress and the White House.
“I think that 2024 looks better and better for us every single day with a united party,” Garcia said, “especially against a divided Republican Party that has obviously no interest in real governance.”
Lawmakers also believe if Democrats remain in line they could exert some concessions from McCarthy on must-pass legislation, including the annual spending bills and raising the debt ceiling, with the GOP only holding a slim majority.
But Democratic unity could be more elusive if Republicans show interest in working with moderate Democrats.
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who has occasionally bucked his party’s leadership as co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said he’s hoping to work with Republicans on “a lot” of bills to address mental health, opioids, immigration, law enforcement, China, manufacturing, and more.
“It’s going to take bipartisan governing to get a lot of these major pieces of legislation across the finish line,” Gottheimer said. “And I think that’s how we should govern.”
Rep. Joe Morelle (D-N.Y.), who was a member of the pivotal Rules Committee while Democrats were in the majority, agreed the unity might not last.
“I think people always are trying to represent their districts, so there may be times where there will be members who will vote for a Republican proposal, obviously depending on what they are,” he said.
Democrats will have to not only be united but present to effectively fight the GOP.
Republicans are ending proxy voting, so an unexpected absence from Democrats could also ease the path for GOP legislation.
Last week, House Minority Whip Kathleen Clark (D-Mass.) kept members close to the floor and voting for Jeffries during the 15 rounds of balloting. Any absences would have helped ease McCarthy’s path to the speakership.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of discussion about it,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said, acknowledging the importance of unity came up during caucus meetings. “It seemed to be almost something instinctual.”
In one case, attendance issues cost Democrats the opportunity during the second day of balloting to keep the House in session and force another failed speaker vote. A GOP motion to adjourn won by only two votes because of absences by Reps. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.).
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) cautioned that “a few good press days” for Democrats would be insufficient if they’re not able to improve national governance.
But in the meantime, he said, Democrats are reveling in watching their political opponents flail.
“The short-term schadenfreude is off the charts,” he added.
With assistance from Emily Wilkins
To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org