Debt ceiling crisis looms as first big test for new Democratic leader

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies (DN.Y.) at his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jefferies (DN.Y.) at his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2023. (Kenny Holston/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — Just six months into his term as House Minority Leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, DN.Y., faces a formidable challenge: selling his fellow Democrats a brokered budget deal in behind closed doors between President Joe Biden and President Kevin McCarthy, with little input from him.

To complicate matters further, Jeffries has no idea how many votes he might ultimately have to deliver for such a package, less than a week away from a potential default, as he hasn’t heard anything from Republicans. on the number of defections they expect if a measure hits the ground.

The situation is particularly infuriating for Democrats because if it was far-right Republicans who pushed the nation to the brink of default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling without spending cuts, they are almost certain to oppose any final compromise. Even if Republicans reach their victory threshold over a majority of their members for the package, it could still require the support of dozens of Democrats to pass.

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“House Republicans haven’t provided any specifics as to how many votes they think they can actually produce,” Jeffries said in an interview. If Republicans are counting on a significant number of Democratic votes to pass the plan, he warned, they better agree with the White House on a deal House Democrats can swallow — even if they do not like it.

“I can say with great clarity that if dozens of Democratic votes in the House are needed, we cannot come to extreme resolution in this case in order to satisfy the needs of right-wing ideologues,” Jeffries said.

The debt ceiling standoff is the first major political and political fight in 20 years in which House Democrats haven’t been dragged into the fray by someone named Pelosi. Jeffries, a 53-year-old Brooklyn lawmaker, took over from Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, a Democratic leader since 2003 and two-time president, in January without opposition. Now he’s undergoing 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 could also have the biggest challenge, as it’s clear House Democrats will be key in pushing any debt limit bill past it. of their minority position in the House. Although Jeffries had little direct influence on the talks, McCarthy is well aware that he can’t get a deal done and hopes to win if House Democrats reject it en masse.

With little transparency in the talks, Jeffries’ troops grew increasingly worried this week that Biden could strike an unsatisfactory deal to raise the debt ceiling – after saying for months he wouldn’t. not a deal at all — and then call on Democrats to pass it.

“A lot of angst,” said Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn. “We don’t know anything.”

Progressives have signaled they are not inclined to support a deal that would cut domestic spending or impose tougher work requirements on public interest programs — two central elements of a deal White House officials and congressional Republicans tried to wrap it up.

Jeffries said he remains confident that Biden will not cede the store and come out of talks with a deal acceptable to enough House Democrats that he can be endorsed as long as McCarthy, R-Calif., and his colleagues provide. their part.

“I have complete confidence in the ability of the Biden administration to lead the charge and protect Democratic values ​​and everyday Americans,” Jeffries said. “And we will be there to support that effort as needed.”

Although not in the room, Jeffries is in regular conversation with the White House about what’s going on, with Jeff Zients, the White House chief of staff, serving as a major point of contact. He credited the administration with engaging with a wide range of House members 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 grumbled that the White House, unwilling to derail the talks, remained too quiet, while McCarthy and his lieutenants met regularly with reporters, gaining some edge on the public relations front. 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 decided they were capable of extracting extreme and painful cuts that will hurt ordinary Americans or crash the economy and benefit politically in 2024,” he said. “It’s unreasonable, it’s cruel, it’s reckless and it’s extreme. But that’s the modern-day Republican Party in the House of Representatives.

Jeffries, who has so far had a working relationship with McCarthy, wasn’t ready to extend that criticism to the speaker.

“It’s not clear to me 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 tough job in terms of bringing together the more extreme elements of his lecture. But extreme elements said they don’t think House Republicans should negotiate with the hostage they took.

As Jeffries navigates the debt ceiling showdown, senior House Democrats said he was able to tap into a reservoir of goodwill and trust from his membership.

“He is clearly above these issues,” said Rep. Richard 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’s pretty broad support in caucus for the posture he’s taken.”

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

Jeffries has a potential trick up his sleeve if talks break down and a catastrophic default seems imminent. He and his team have quietly prepared a special petition to force a vote to increase the debt limit if all else fails. All 213 Democrats have now signed the petition, leaving them five votes out of the 218 needed. As time ticked on this week, he stepped up the call for Republicans to sign on, though there is no indication yet that there will be.

Jeffries called it a chance for Republicans to prove him wrong and show that they’re not all captives to the far right.

“Unfortunately, the so-called moderates in the House Republican Conference have not shown the courage to break with the most extreme wing of their party,” he said. “Now is the time to do it.”

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