Biden gets to know new partner in House in Hakeem Jeffries
President Biden last week marked the beginning of his working relationship with House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, whom he’ll have to rely on when it comes to Republican threats of spending cuts and a showdown over the country’s debt ceiling.
The new Democratic leader’s role is also a generational shift after 20 years of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) reign. But Jeffries, who is the first Black person to lead either party in Congress in U.S. history, is no complete stranger to Biden world having been a campaign surrogate in 2020.
Jeffries last week made his first visit to the White House since taking on his new leadership role, huddling with Biden and other Democrats to discuss the party’s goals for the new Congress.
Before now, Biden and Jeffries did not have a close relationship and had never met one-on-one, a source close to Jeffries said. But the source said those dynamics offer the Democrats a clean slate and predicted the pair will become close.
They are “very similar people with a very similar background,” the source said, adding that “they’re both from working class families with hard working parents that instilled the right values in them.”
Jeffries, the hip hop loving Brooklynite, is nearly 30 years the president’s junior, and up until now, Biden, 80, has largely worked on the leadership level with his contemporaries while serving as president. Pelosi, 82, stepped down with the purpose of making room for the next generation of leaders.
Also at the White House meeting on Tuesday was Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), 72, with whom Biden has a longstanding and close relationship. The other House members with Jeffries were also all newer faces to Biden — Minority Whip Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar (Calif.), both of whom rose with Jeffries when the old guard stepped down at the end of the last Congress.
The White House describes Biden’s relationship with Jeffries as a partnership.
“The president sees … Leader Jeffries as a vital partner in this and is looking forward to continuing to work with the congressman and also is proud to work with the congressman closely as we push forward on our shared agenda, our shared priorities, in that 118th Congress,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.
One area in which Jeffries can help Biden get some legislative priorities in order is the New York Democrats’ reportedly smooth working relationship with Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who has sometimes faced a cool reception from the president.
Biden has said he hopes to work with McCarthy in good faith, but is also refusing to negotiate on the debt ceiling — a hot button issue that will be a point of contention for months as Republicans demand accompanying spending cuts.
The president is set to lay out his goals for working with Congress at his State of the Union address, which is slated for Feb. 7 and will be Jeffries’s first as Democratic leader.
Biden in those remarks will likely also confront Republicans head on, especially hardline GOP lawmakers who have in recent days championed bills like tougher restrictions on abortions and a national, 30-percent sales tax.
On Thursday, during his weekly press conference at the Capitol, Jeffries also took shots at Republicans, echoing one of Biden’s campaign trademarks by labeling a faction of the party as “extreme MAGA” when discussing the 30-percent sales tax proposal that he said would have a greater impact on everyday Americans while benefiting the wealthy.
“That’s what they’re spending their time doing — team extreme. Extreme MAGA Republicans,” Jeffries told reporters. He added that GOP lawmakers wanted to “lecture us” on fiscal issues while a bulk of the national debt was piled on during the Trump administration.
Still, Jeffries said he would look for openings to work in a bipartisan fashion, pointing out that he was involved in negotiations on criminal justice reform with the Trump administration, which he said he was never “bashful” about criticizing.
He also noted that he wants to continue “having a very productive relationship with the Speaker,” referring to McCarthy.
From the minority, Jeffries and House Democrats are virtually powerless to influence the chamber’s legislative agenda. But they can call attention to the contrasts between the parties on a host of major issues.
“I think they have to remind the American people just who’s in charge of the House right now. The same folks who denied the election results, they washed over Jan. 6,” said former Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) who is also a former Democratic Caucus Chair.
“Hakeem knows that they have to help to deliver for the American people, when it comes to the debt ceiling, when it comes to protecting the things that Democrats care about — like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — he’ll have to find ways to do that,” he added. “But I think he’s up to the challenge.”
Other Democrats agree that Biden and Jeffries will have a positive working relationship moving forward.
“Leader Jeffries is an exemplar in the field of leadership. I believe the president views Leader Jeffries as a thought leader and someone who is respected amongst his peers on both sides of the aisle,” said Brandon Neal, a democratic strategist and former national Democratic National Committee political director.
The generational issue is unlikely to have an impact as Biden is known to take on a mentorship role with younger Democrats, showcased by his relationship with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is 41. The president has said Buttigieg reminds him of his late son Beau Biden, who died in 2015 at the age of 46.
“I think that the president himself is very adaptable. The…ages may be different, but that connectivity, the ability to relate and to find things that join people together is something that I think the president excels at,” Crowley said.
The source close to Jeffries said the two men would work well together because they have a similar work ethic.
“Jeffries, like Biden, is about getting stuff done. Another reason why they’ll end up with a close working relationship is because they will focus on the end result,” the source said.
Mike Lillis contributed to this report.
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