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6 months in, Hakeem Jeffries reflects on the debt ceiling drama and replacing Pelosi

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries says replacing Nancy Pelosi is like following after Michael Jordan.
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House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries says replacing Nancy Pelosi is like following after Michael Jordan.

Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York was sworn into the 118th Congress six months ago, making history as the first Black House minority leader in U.S. history.

In that time, the House has seen a lot of division, and nowhere was that more evident than the recent talks on the debt ceiling, which saw the U.S. government almost default on its debts. The House of Representatives voted last week to pass a bill to suspend the nation's debt limit through January 1, 2025.

"It was incredibly important that we avoid this dangerous default, even though there were many extreme MAGA Republicans who were determined to bring that about," Jeffries told NPR.

Jeffries sat down with All Things Considered's Juana Summers to talk about the recent negotiations and what this can tell us about the direction Congress is headed.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.


Juana Summers: There are a number of progressive Democrats who have made the point that they were dissatisfied with some parts of this deal, including work requirements, some environmental measures, among other things. What do you say to members of your party who feel like they just watched Republicans use the nation's debt limit as a political wedge and that Democrats, possibly — and the president, even — should have come to the table earlier to ensure that Republicans didn't exact all of the things that they did in this deal in terms of concessions that they were able to get here?

Hakeem Jeffries: Well, President Biden did a very good job under difficult circumstances, given the fact that there was a willingness by some extreme right wing folks on the other side of the aisle to actually default on our debt, crash the economy and trigger a job-killing recession in order to extract maximum pain on the economy, which they thought they could leverage to maximize political benefit for themselves in 2024. In that context, President Biden was able to protect those important priorities that we cared about and mitigate the damage that could otherwise have been done, including as it relates to the SNAP program.

It's extraordinary when you think about the fact that extreme MAGA Republicans were determined to reduce the number of people who had access to nutritional benefit programs in the United States. But because the Biden administration was able to expand exemptions, the independent Congressional Budget Office concluded that as a result of the changes made in the debt ceiling resolution to the SNAP program, approximately a million more Americans every year will have access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program food benefits. That's an extraordinary thing.

Jeffries speaks with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference in March 2022.
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Jeffries speaks with then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a news conference in March 2022.

Summers: There are 71 Republicans who defected and did not support Speaker McCarthy, despite his hands-on role in that negotiation. What does that tell you, as someone who works with Speaker McCarthy on a day-to-day basis, about his ability to govern a caucus with many factions?

Jeffries: Either the House will be unable to function at all because the extreme MAGA Republican wing of the House Republican Conference is determined to bring about a "my way or the highway" situation. Alternatively, House Republicans can decide to partner with President Biden, House Democrats and the Senate to try to find common ground bipartisan consensus in areas where we are investing in the health, safety and economic wellbeing of the American people as opposed to trying to undermine it at every turn.

Summers: I want to ask you a little bit about your tenure in this job. You became leader of the Democrats in the House roughly six months ago. Your predecessor, Nancy Pelosi, was known for her political acumen, her ability to count votes well. I'm curious, how would you characterize your style in this role compared to her style in this role?

Jeffries: Well, Speaker Pelosi is an iconic, legendary leader, and it's been an honor and a blessing to have spent time serving in leadership with her in the previous few congresses and to continue to get the benefit of her advice, guidance and insight moving forward.

...I'll leave it to others to characterize my style other than to say that it's very difficult to follow Michael Jordan, and I'm following Michael Jordan.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy dealt with the White House on the debt ceiling deal.
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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy dealt with the White House on the debt ceiling deal.

Summers: One of the things that my colleagues have heard from Speaker McCarthy when it comes to you is he's told them and others that he has a better working relationship with you than he did with Speaker Pelosi. Do you think that's true?

Jeffries: Well, I can't comment on what relationship may have existed between Kevin McCarthy and prior leadership, but I can say that we have a very good working relationship. From the very beginning, we decided that we were going to communicate with each other honestly, authentically and consistently, and we've been able to do that. It doesn't mean that we will always agree. We disagree often, but we can agree to disagree without being disagreeable. And we've both tried to take that approach.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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