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House of Cards

Hakeem Jeffries Is the Big Winner in the McCarthy Trials

In the Republican speaker’s darkest hour, it’s the young Democratic leader who has flexed his political muscles by unifying his famously fractious party.

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Democratic House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries

The most powerful person currently residing in the House of Representatives is not even a member of the majority. With Kevin McCarthy removed from the speakership thanks to a small faction of his own Republican conference, Democratic Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has hit something of a new stride. Having amassed support from Democratic members, he’s riding a fresh wave of goodwill and maintaining a firm grasp on an often fractious caucus.

The recent chaos on the Hill has illuminated Jeffries’s relative strength rather brightly. With only a four-seat majority, and eight Republicans voting to remove McCarthy from his position, the speaker needed support from Democrats to remain in power. However, Democrats—led by Jeffries—remained unified in their opposition to lending McCarthy a helping hand. Every single Democrat voted in favor of vacating the speakership, removing McCarthy from his post.

This unity is not only indicative of Democrats’ universal loathing for McCarthy but of their trust in their own leader: Jeffries’s handle on his caucus is as strong as McCarthy’s was shaky. Representative Don Beyer went so far as to call Jeffries the “de facto speaker,” given his support from a plurality of House representatives.

“He has the most members of Congress behind him. He has the greatest unity right now. He certainly has the most integrity,” Beyer told me. “My perception is that many people in the Republican caucus don’t respect the speaker.… That is not true in our caucus. To the person, people trust and respect Hakeem Jeffries.”

Despite succeeding former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democratic icon who led the caucus for a decade and a half, Jeffries has quickly carved his own niche as leader, inspiring fervent loyalty from his members.

“Demeanor means a lot in this institution, because demeanor generally dictates confidence,” said Representative Richard Neal. “I think that he’s got confidence in himself, and we’ve got confidence in him.”

The contrast between McCarthy and Jeffries was established the first week of the new congressional term, when a group of recalcitrant Republican lawmakers—including Representative Matt Gaetz, who introduced the motion to vacate this week—prevented McCarthy from earning a majority of votes for the speaker’s gavel for several days. As McCarthy suffered through 14 losing votes, an unconvincing grin plastered across his face, Jeffries received unanimous support from his caucus again and again, wearing an assured smile hovering on a smirk. McCarthy was elected speaker on the fifteenth and final vote, prefiguring a tumultuous time in office.

Since then, McCarthy has occasionally faced revolt from his Republican members. Jeffries, by contrast, has occasionally wielded significant leverage relative to his position. His party has, under his stewardship, remained largely united in its opposition to the Republican agenda. Democrats were instrumental in passing the legislation crafted by McCarthy and President Joe Biden to lift the debt ceiling, a deal that McCarthy almost immediately reneged upon in sanctioning spending bills far lower than the caps he agreed to with the president. (In order to approve the debt limit deal, McCarthy needed Democratic support for a procedural vote—during that vote, Jeffries signaled to his members that they should support the measure by lifting a green card, giving Democrats the go-ahead with a literal wave of his hand.)

Democrats also helped push the bill temporarily funding the government over the finish line on Saturday, earning McCarthy the ire of his right flank. Ahead of the vote, Jeffries used his so-called “magic minute”—a privilege that allows party leaders to speak without a time limit—to speak for nearly an hour, stalling to give Democrats time to read the 71-page bill while also criticizing “extreme MAGA Republicans.”

Jeffries has inspired such loyalty in large part because he listens to his members, Democrats say. The caucus convened for several hours on Tuesday morning, in a meeting where dozens of members gave one-minute speeches explaining their positions. “Hakeem’s style is to make every member feel that they’re included and that they matter,” said Representative Debbie Dingell. Another Democrat, Representative Abigail Spanberger, called Jeffries an “extraordinary leader” because “he listens to people [and] he engages with people.”

Democrats had different motivations for their antipathy to McCarthy, from his visiting Donald Trump at Mar-a-Lago in the wake of the siege on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to his efforts to blame Democrats for the narrowly averted government shutdown over the weekend. Jeffries has allowed members to vent those frustrations.

At a Tuesday meeting with Jeffries and the New Democrat Coalition, an ideological group within the Democratic caucus with around 100 members, “literally everyone walked in there with a different opinion of why [they opposed McCarthy], but we walked out of there with resolve,” said Representative Annie Kuster, the group’s chair. “That’s something that Hakeem brings to us, whenever he speaks to our group. He reminds us of our unity of purpose,” Kuster said.

Naturally, Jeffries also benefits from being minority leader rather than speaker; it’s far easier to remain unified when the primary goal is opposing the majority, rather than coalescing around a set of legislative priorities. Jeffries may not instill the same fear in his caucus that Pelosi could occasionally inspire, said a House Democratic aide, but Democrats are nonetheless united behind him—in no small part because of their desire to retake the majority.

“They want him to succeed, and they are together in trying to make sure that he does,” said the aide. “The nature of the minority is such that you don’t have as many legislative, policy, political [distractions] that are pulling you away from the desire to help him win. Because what we all want is to be in charge again next year.”

One Democratic representative, speaking on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that being in the minority was easier than being in the majority—and that a strong leader was one who could unite their conference once they’re in power.

“The great leaders also can make that an opportunity for an exciting chemistry of success. And that’s what Pelosi was able to do when we were in the majority,” the representative said. “Hakeem has already proven himself to be an effective leader in opposition.”