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Jeffries elected first Black leader of a congressional caucus

Retaking House in 2024 a top priority for New York Democrat

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries was elected by fellow Democrats to be House minority leader in the next Congress, making him the first Black lawmaker to lead a party caucus.
New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries was elected by fellow Democrats to be House minority leader in the next Congress, making him the first Black lawmaker to lead a party caucus. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democrats on Wednesday officially elected New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as the next minority leader by unanimous consent, making him the first Black lawmaker to lead a congressional party caucus. 

Jeffries’ new role won’t start until January when the new Congress is sworn in and Republicans take control of the House. His No. 1 priority for the next two years is to lead Democrats back to the majority in 2024.  

Until then, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, who announced earlier this month she would step down from leadership after 20 years as the top House Democrat, will continue to lead her caucus through major lame-duck legislative negotiations on government spending, defense policy and other legislation that lawmakers hope to pass before the current Congress ends.

Jeffries is the outgoing Democratic Caucus chair, a post he’s held for the maximum two-term limit under caucus rules. Before that he served as co-chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, the caucus messaging arm. 

California Rep. Pete Aguilar, outgoing caucus vice chair, was elected by unanimous consent to succeed Jeffries as caucus chair, which will be moving up in leadership rankings to become the No. 3 position. 

Massachusetts Rep. Katherine M. Clark will fill the No. 2 slot after Democrats elected her to be minority whip by unanimous consent. The longtime No. 2 Democrat, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, is stepping down from leadership like Pelosi. Clark is currently assistant speaker and previously served as caucus vice chair. 

Democrats’ leadership titles will shift when they’re in the minority because they lose the speaker position. But if they gain back the majority in 2024 then Jeffries would be running for speaker, Clark for majority leader and Aguilar for majority whip, assuming they want to keep their current rankings.

Democrats’ current No. 3 leader, House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, is running for assistant Democratic leader. That position had been expected to move down to fourth in the leadership ranks, but as of Wednesday evening Democrats had not decided that definitively.

Clyburn faces a challenge from Rhode Island Rep. David Cicilline, who announced a last-minute bid Wednesday.

That election will take place Thursday. Clyburn was in North Charleston on Wednesday to speak at the funeral of University of Virginia football player Lavel “Tyler” Davis Jr., who along with two of his teammates was shot by a fellow student after a class trip.

‘Do the best damn job’

Jeffries told reporters Tuesday night he hasn’t really had an opportunity to reflect on what making history as the first Black leader of a congressional party means. 

“It would take away from having to make real-time decisions as we prepare to organize for the new Congress,” he said. 

The time for reflection on the historical significance will come, but first Jeffries said he’s just focused on preparing to perform the duties of top leader so he can be successful in the role, along with the other new caucus leaders.

“It’s a solemn responsibility that we are all inheriting, and the best thing that we can do as a result of the seriousness and solemnity of the moment is lean in hard and do the best damn job that we can for the people,” he said. 

Jeffries said Democrats’ governing and communications strategies will need to shift in the minority, where the party can’t control the House agenda and will have to decide on a daily basis whether to cooperate with Republicans or rally against their proposals. The latter may be more likely since he sees the opposite party mostly as “extreme MAGA Republicans.” 

“There’s nothing more unifying than being in the minority and having a clear-eyed objective and goal of getting back into the majority so we can continue to deliver big things for everyday Americans,” Jeffries said. 

House Republicans have nominated their top leader, California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, to be speaker, but he faces opposition and hasn’t locked down enough votes yet to win a January floor election. 

Jeffries has routinely lobbed zingers at McCarthy in weekly press conferences and television appearances as caucus chair. On Tuesday, he did not deny there’s some hostility toward a leader he will likely have to work with more closely in the coming years. 

“I think I’ve been pretty gentle on Kevin McCarthy over the years,” Jeffries said. “I just respond to things that he has either said or done that I found to be outrageous, such as calling out members on our side of the aisle as extreme when he’s got an extraordinary group of members on the other side of the aisle who fall into that category.”  

Jeffries said he has had more interaction with Louisiana Republican Rep. Steve Scalise, the incoming House majority leader. But he said he’s willing to talk to anyone on the other side of the aisle and retains “an open mind about being able to engage with Kevin McCarthy for the good of the country.”

Although Democrats won’t have much say in the House legislative agenda, Jeffries is hoping they can work with Republicans on policies that will help address numerous threats to “the American middle-class way of life and those who aspire to be part of it.” 

“Over the last several decades, the American dream has been under attack as a result of globalization, the outsourcing of good-paying American jobs, poorly negotiated trade deals, the dramatic decline of unionization and the rise of automation,” he said. “Any one of those factors on its own would have devastated large parts of the American middle class. Collectively, that has been a tsunami.”

‘Shoulders of giants’

As the Pelosi-Hoyer-Clyburn era comes to an end, Jeffries said he’s learned a lot from them over the years and will tap into their collective wisdom.

“This is a moment of transition. And we stand on the shoulders of giants,” he said. 

In acknowledgment of that, Jeffries offered a resolution before the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee on Tuesday night to bestow Pelosi with the honorific title of “speaker emerita.” It was adopted by unanimous consent. Calling Pelosi “the most consequential speaker in American history,” Jeffries said the title honors Pelosi’s “lifetime of service as a legendary legislator, notorious negotiator and a fabulous facilitator.” 

Later Tuesday night at his sit-down with reporters, Jeffries declined to say if he envisions himself as a longtime Democratic leader like Pelosi or if he would potentially serve only a few terms so others can rise. 

“My focus right now is getting to next week, and then getting to next month, and then getting to the next Congress,” he said. 

But in the next Congress, one of Jeffries’ main goals is to lead in a way that elevates his colleagues and leverages their individual talents and expertise. 

“The House Democratic Caucus is at its best when everyone has an opportunity to be on the playing field, playing the right position,” he said. “And I look forward to trying to facilitate that, because we have a caucus filled with incredibly talented individuals of all generations.”

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