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House Democrats head into unfamiliar territory: New leaders, in a minority

Democrats on Wednesday elected new leaders who will lead them in the minority in the new year

Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), hold a news conference Wednesday shortly after being elected to lead the House Democratic Caucus. (Sarah Silbiger/For The Washington Post)

Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) was elected Wednesday to lead House Democrats in the next Congress, making history as the first Black person to lead either party in either chamber and taking on the responsibility of keeping the caucus united on policies and messaging as they set their sights on winning back the majority next term.

Jeffries, as well as Minority Whip-elect Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) and Caucus Chair-elect Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), will take on their positions during a moment of transition for the party, which will be fighting to protect two years of legislative victories won under a Democratic president with control of both chambers in Congress. They also will be faced with ensuring the ideological factions within the caucus are heard and represented in key decisions, a desire members have long had after decades of centralized power wielded by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who earlier this month announced she was stepping back from leadership.

While the lack of a singular strong hand can present challenges coalescing the caucus in a majority, being in the minority could allow Democrats to find consensus in challenging the Republican agenda with their own policy prescriptions they hope will allow them to reclaim the majority in 2024.

“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 in an interview with reporters Tuesday.

Unlike Republicans, who have made Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) quest to be speaker more dramatic, Democrats on Wednesday unanimously elected Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar, who have long worked to forge relationships within the caucus ahead of this day.

On Nov. 30, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.), the House Democratic Caucus chair, becomes the first Black lawmaker to lead a party in Congress. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

Those closest to the trio say the new generation will lead differently, stressing that they have long viewed one another as partners who have made decisions after vetting concerns across the caucus. Jeffries has forged close ties with the Congressional Black Caucus and moderates, and Clark is admired within the Progressive Caucus, while Aguilar has the ear of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and experience running for reelection as a vulnerable Democrat.

“We all share the same approach. Everybody matters,” Jeffries said at a news conference following his election. “Sometimes we can have noisy conversations, but as we’ve shown time and time again on issue after issue after issue, at the end of the day we always come together, find the highest common denominator and get big things done for everyday Americans.”

A borough takes charge: Brooklyn is in the House and Senate

Democrats also are getting ready to play a more significant role in the 118th Congress than initially expected after the midterm elections delivered a slim majority for Republicans, which could be between four or five seats once all races are called. Some Republicans have publicly conceded they will need Democrats’ help to approve must-pass legislation, such as increasing the debt limit and funding the government, because defections from the far-right flank of the GOP conference are expected.

Democrats representing swing districts are the most inclined to continue working across the aisle, seeing the slim majority as an opportunity to tuck bipartisan priorities into legislation that would otherwise not pass as stand-alone bills. The most vulnerable incumbent Democrats who defied expectations and won reelection, along with moderate Republicans, believe the midterm results proved Americans want both parties to work together.

“One of the things that I have always said is that the way to get to good and lasting policy requires for us to be the adults in the room that have those conversations,” said Rep. Sharice Davids, a Democrat who represents a swing district in Kansas. “I think that’s true of the big tent that we have as Democrats, and I think that’s true of how we get bipartisan legislation done.”

Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), the outgoing chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition, pointed to bipartisan legislative achievements during the current term, such as the semiconductor manufacturing and science legislation and the infrastructure law, to prove that willingness to work across the aisle exists.

“It’s hard, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that’s easy, but, you know, we’ve got to find the opportunities where we can continue to move forward in the next Congress,” she said.

In the minority, Democrats are looking to ensure the government does not default on its debt, stays open by averting shutdowns, funds the defense budget and passes a farm bill reauthorization, among other concerns.

Meet Hakeem Jeffries, the new leader of House Democrats

But Democrats from across the ideological spectrum have made clear they will not help Republicans on legislation that they deem too extreme or that is dictated by GOP members Democrats consider the most right-wing. Rep. Angie Craig (D-Minn.) echoed many Democrats who said that if Republicans only “scream from the mountaintops and focus on investigations,” it will probably turn them off from helping them.

“What we’re fighting against is this MAGA extremism, and we heard loud and clear this election from the American public that they want us to work to get things done for them,” Aguilar said Wednesday. “They want us to stamp out extremism in every form. So that’s going to be our mandate.”

Jeffries said that while he has interacted more with Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) over the years, he is keeping an “open mind about being able to engage with Kevin McCarthy for the good of the country.”

On Nov. 30, House Democrats elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (N.Y.) as their leader succeeding House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). (Video: The Washington Post)

Republicans have touted their plans to launch investigations into the foreign business dealings of the president’s son Hunter Biden, the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the Biden administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its immigration policies at the southern border.

Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), who is seeking to be the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, warned that Republicans should not use the investigations as a “spectacular sideshow” when there are bigger issues such as immigration and legislation to protect DACA recipients.

“What we really need is the Democrats and Republicans to come together around common-sense immigration proposals,” he said. “Like the ones that have been adopted in the past that will address the problem comprehensively.”

In addition to defending the Biden administration against GOP investigations, Democrats are hoping to emphasize policies they believe helped keep them competitive during the midterm elections.

To contrast the GOP’s goal of cutting spending to tackle inflation, Democrats want to amplify their push to reintroduce the child tax credit, boost housing access and pass other measures that they believe will help make life more affordable for Americans. By striving to work in a bipartisan manner and rejecting extreme proposals that Republicans may not be able to pass on their own, Democrats believe they could win back the majority in 2024.

“It is not just Democratic families who are struggling with child care and health care. It is not just Democratic families struggling to afford housing,” Clark said during a news conference Wednesday. “So we’re going to come together as a caucus from any member from across the aisle who wants to get to work for the American people.”

Being in the minority will also present the opportunity for new leadership to learn how to keep the caucus unified, a significant responsibility that becomes even more important in the majority.

Jeffries believes he, Clark and Aguilar are uniquely positioned to lead the caucus, having served in leadership at critical points — from the Trump administration to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol — that have cultivated their individual strengths and sharpened them as a unit.

“We were thrust onto the battlefield in positions of consequence, and our ability to lead in different ways was tested. And ultimately, the evaluation as to whether we were successful or not, you know, will be made [Wednesday],” he said.

While members are eager for the diffusion of power now that the “old guard” has stepped aside — with the exception of Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.), who will be fourth in the leadership hierarchy — the absence of Pelosi’s firm hand could complicate negotiations that previously ended up in concessions from one faction or another as she found ways to ensure bills could pass through Democrats’ narrow majority.

Pelosi said Tuesday that she has confidence in the new generation of Democratic leadership and will not try to meddle in how they govern.

“It’s important for them to establish their own agenda, vision, and engage members,” she said. “I have every confidence that they’ll do a great job with that.”

During the latest Congress, Pelosi at times had to rely on Republican votes to pass legislation when the most liberal wing of the caucus objected to compromise on legislation such as the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That equation has switched now that Democrats are in the minority.

“I hope that our Democrat colleagues will show the same strength and faith in this new Congress. And if we do something similar and there’s Republican defections and we need their block of votes to be outcome determinative, I hope that they will show the same courage that we did,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), who was one of the 13 Republicans that voted in support of the infrastructure bill and faced political blowback for doing so.

Before the possibility of working with Republicans comes in sharper focus, Democrats will spend Thursday fleshing out the rest of their leadership hierarchy in hopes that it reflects the regional and cultural diversity of the caucus.

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) was elected Wednesday to serve alongside Aguilar as Democratic caucus vice chair, making him the only veteran and Asian American member in leadership.

Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.) mounted a surprising 11th-hour challenge against Clyburn, who was running unopposed for the assistant leader position. While members and aides privately suggested he has little chance against Clyburn, Cicilline said it was important to run to have a caucus member from the LGBTQ community in leadership.

The Congressional Black Caucus is hoping Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), along with several other members, join the leadership ranks. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus has been making a push to add more representation besides Aguilar, and it could come through Reps. Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.) or Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) , who both mounted runs for policy committee co-chair.

Democrats adopted Rep. Susie Lee’s (D-Nev.) proposal for having a member in leadership from a battleground district to help with messaging after many vulnerable Democrats rejected the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s advice on how to run their campaigns.

“I just think that we’ve got to rethink inside the caucus how we approach leadership and opportunity,” Craig said earlier this month. “You see a lot of folks who leave the House caucus and run for statewide office, and one of the reasons is there’s not a lot of opportunity to advance and gain experience, and, you know, people get restless.”

To address that restlessness, Democrats will vote on rule changes for the caucus including term-limit restrictions for committee chairs and ranking members. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) has proposed a rule that would allow a vote of the full caucus on whether to keep or oust a Democrat after six years in a top committee post. During a virtual rules and procedures meeting Monday, it was decided to recommend that rule “unfavorably” ahead of the full caucus vote Thursday because many members disagree with such limitations.

Though Jeffries declined to say whether he supports such rule changes, he did pledge to prioritize members’ concerns of remaining stagnant because he believes Democrats are at their “best when everyone has an opportunity to be on the playing field, playing the right position.”

“We have a caucus filled with incredibly talented individuals of all generations,” he said. “Leaning in and making sure that everyone is put in the right position to elevate their talent, brilliance and creativity for the good of the caucus in the Congress is one of the challenges that I look forward to leaning in to in the next few years.”

correction

A previous version of this article incorrectly described a proposal to limit the service of House Democratic caucus members as committee chairs and/or ranking minority-party members. The proposal would allow the entire House caucus, not just members on a given committee, to vote on whether a member can spend more than six years in that leadership role. The article has been corrected.

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