Rep. James Clyburn’s time at the negotiating table expired when Vice President Joseph Biden’s debt talks collapsed, but he has remained valuable to his party by acting as an emissary to Democratic leaders on behalf of many of the Caucus’ far-flung constituencies.
The South Carolina Democrat’s presence in the Biden talks, and now more as a key consultant to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), particularly comforts progressives and the Congressional Black Caucus by signaling that their interests are being represented.
Democratic leaders said they see the Assistant Minority Leader as a loyal confidant who has the ear and trust of not just the rank and file, but also of President Barack Obama, who several Members said personally calls him.
“I wish he could still be at the table with us,” Pelosi told Roll Call of the ongoing White House negotiations. “He’s a tremendous resource to me both intellectually and from an advocacy standpoint.”
Clyburn’s demeanor has a way of calming often-tense negotiations, Members said. The quality came through in a Friday interview with the House’s No. 3 Democrat in his first-floor Capitol office, where he discussed his responsibility in promoting Democrats’ role in the debt talks.
Clyburn said that although his time to negotiate has passed, he still sees himself as a faithful messenger for his leader’s priorities.
“My role has really been one of a solid vote for Nancy Pelosi,” whom he speaks with nightly, he said. “She has sought my advice … and kept me abreast moving forward.”
Leadership holds meetings before and after every debt talk, and Clyburn has been able to pass on to often-fractious Caucus members the sense that their leaders are listening to their concerns.
“It’s good to know he’s there,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “It’s a level of reassurance for a lot of us, in that he understands the value of the programs that are being discussed.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that were it not for Clyburn’s presence in the leadership-level negotiations, the CBC would not feel as confident that Democrats are protecting the needs of African-Americans, who the CBC feels would be disproportionately affected by cuts to social programs.
“He is a practical politician who is not afraid to express the needs of his blackness,” the Missouri Democrat said. “You start talking about making cuts to the [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program], you’re going to get an outburst from Jim Clyburn. You talk about trying to completely defund Planned Parenthood, you’ve got to climb over Jim Clyburn. You talk about reducing the benefits of Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security, and you’ve got outrage coming from Jim Clyburn.”
As an example of his group’s trust in Clyburn, Cleaver pointed to a CBC meeting last Wednesday at which Clyburn briefed Members on the status of the debt negotiations and his support for Pelosi’s posture.
“It was only maybe six seconds before someone stood up and said, ‘I move that we adopt the position that Mr. Clyburn has just expressed in a response to the debt talks,'” Cleaver said.
That confidence will no doubt help deliver votes, whether it be on an as-yet-unknown budget deal or another compromise such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) proposed plan.
“When there’s an unknown out there, you want to make sure you’re placing your trust in someone that’s solid as a rock, and that’s Jim Clyburn,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson (Conn.)said.
“He brings the issues of those who have been left behind in our society for minorities, people that are hurting, in pain,” Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said. “He brings a particular color to it because of his history, his background, he knows what it is for people to suffer.”
Though Clyburn said some thought he was unqualified to represent the budgetary concerns of the Caucus in the Biden talks, he said the rumblings motivated him.
“I’ve always got something to prove,” he said. “These were people who had these notions about who I was that didn’t know what they were talking about.”
House Budget ranking member Chris Van Hollen, another veteran of the Biden talks, said Clyburn brought a particular focus on funding for social programs.
“He made very clear that we need to have a fair approach when we’re talking about reducing the deficit, one that protects critical investments this country needs to make in education and health care,” the Maryland Democrat said.
After each of the 10 sessions with Biden, Clyburn said he would huddle with a broad swath of Democratic Members — Reps. Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) of the Progressive Caucus, Bobby Scott (Va.) of the CBC, Xavier Becerra (Calif.) of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and Jim Cooper (Tenn.) of the Blue Dog Coalition, to name a few.
In doing so, he was able to keep his finger on the pulse of the groups, not just to inform his negotiating posture but to allow them to report back to their Capitol constituency that they were being included.