Just six months into his tenure as the House minority leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries faces a formidable challenge: Selling his fellow Democrats on a budget deal negotiated behind closed doors between President Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, without much input from his end.
Complicating matters further is the fact that, less than a week from a potential default, Mr. Jeffries has no idea how many votes he might ultimately have to deliver for such a package because he has heard nothing from Republicans about how many defections they expect if a measure hits 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 any final compromise. Even if Republicans meet their threshold of winning over a majority of their members for the package, it could still require backing from scores of Democrats to pass.
“House Republicans haven’t provided any clarity as to how many votes they think they can actually produce,” Mr. Jeffries said in an interview. If Republicans are counting on a sizable number of Democratic votes to pass the plan, he warned, they had better come to terms with the White House on a deal that House Democrats can swallow — even if they don’t love it.
“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 satisfy the needs of right-wing ideologues,” Mr. Jeffries said.
The debt limit stalemate 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 twice 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 any debt limit bill over the finish line from their minority position in the House. Though Mr. Jeffries has had little direct sway in the talks, Mr. McCarthy is well aware that he cannot strike an agreement and hope to prevail if House Democrats reject it en masse.
With little transparency into the talks, Mr. Jeffries’s troops have grown increasingly anxious this week about the possibility that Mr. Biden is going to cut an unsatisfactory deal to raise the debt limit — after saying for months that he would not cut a deal at all — and then call on Democrats to embrace it.
“Lot of angst,” said Representative Steve Cohen, Democrat of Tennessee. “We don’t know anything.”
Progressives have signaled they are not inclined to support any deal that cuts domestic spending or imposes stricter work requirements on public benefit programs — both central elements of a deal White House officials and congressional Republicans have been trying to hash out.
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