Debt Limit Crisis Looms as First Big Test for New Democratic Leader

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 to 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.

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.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

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.

Mr. Jeffries says he remains confident that Mr. Biden will not give away the store and will come out of the talks with an agreement palatable to enough House Democrats that it can be approved as long as Mr. McCarthy, a California Republican, and his colleagues provide their share.

“I have full faith in the ability of the Biden administration to lead the charge and protect Democratic values and everyday Americans,” Mr. Jeffries said. “And we’ll be there to support that effort as needed.”

While he is not in the room, Mr. Jeffries is in regular conversation with the White House about what is transpiring, 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 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 and that will serve them well at the end of the day when a resolution is reached,” he said.

House Democrats have been grumbling that the White House, not wanting to knock the talks off track, has remained too quiet while Mr. McCarthy and his lieutenants have gathered regularly with reporters, gaining some advantage on the public relations front. Mr. Jeffries has moved to fill that gap in recent days with a series of appearances he has used to assail far-right Republicans, who he accuses 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 views 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 navigates the debt limit showdown, senior House Democrats say he is 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.

Mr. Jeffries has one potential trick up his sleeve should the talks collapse and a catastrophic default appear imminent. He and his team quietly readied 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. As the clock ticked this week, he stepped up the call for Republicans to sign on, though there are no indications yet that any will.

Mr. Jeffries called it a chance for Republicans to prove him wrong and show that not all of them are captives of the extreme right.

“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.”

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