Nov 29, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Dems ditch infighting with new leader coronation

Illustration of 2 Democrat donkeys on either side of a balance

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

House Democrats will meet Wednesday to coronate a new leadership triumvirate — capping years of meticulous planning that united a fractious party and defied stereotypes about Democratic infighting.

Why it matters: Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) reigned over the caucus for a generation. The new troika — average age 51 — is poised to shape the party for years to come.

State of play: House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is running to replace Pelosi — though, with Republicans set to take the majority, he would become minority leader.

  • Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) is vying for minority whip and Caucus Vice Chair Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.) is running for caucus chair, the Nos. 2 and 3 positions in leadership, respectively.
  • Clyburn is angling to stay on as assistant leader, the No. 4 position, while Pelosi and Hoyer head to the back benches as rank-and-file members.
  • None of the four is expected to face opposition. "Somewhere during the 10 days of Thanksgiving, if anybody wanted to drum something up they would've been in touch with us, and we have heard nothing," said one House Democrat.

What they're saying: More than a half dozen House Democrats, in interviews with Axios, described a trio that has spent years building trust and support across diverse factions while planning their ascensions to the top.

  • "Any time I'm watching my calories, I get a cheesecake from Hakeem ... he's always checking in," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). "And Katherine Clark will text and check in, as will Pete Aguilar. So they're good about that."
  • Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who entered Congress in 2012 along with Jeffries and Clark, said of Jeffries' leadership style: "He does at least as much listening as he does talking, and I can't say that about every other leader."

Another House Democrat from the class of 2012 said Jeffries and Clark have been preparing for years to ascend in the leadership ranks, with Aguilar joining in later.

  • "They have been laying the groundwork for this for a long, long time," they told Axios. "I think people have known for quite a while that Hakeem and Katherine were going to be the ones to move up."

The intrigue: More recent planning also helped the pieces fall into place. Clyburn told Axios he had “extensive discussions” with fellow Black Caucus member Jeffries about their plans in the weeks leading up to Pelosi’s announcement.

  • "I told him upfront if [Pelosi] were to leave, I would not pursue the top job. Nor would I pursue re-election to the position I held," he said in an interview.
  • Instead, Clyburn told Jeffries he was "amenable to staying at the leadership table to be of any assistance I could be going forward, but I did not want to be in the top three. [I wanted] to have a seamless transition ... and I think that's what we've had."
  • Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), who has openly rebelled against leadership in the past, said he's been talking with Jeffries, with whom he serves on the Budget Committee, "for quite a while, actually — well over a year. Jeffries is "the kind of dynamic leader that we need," Moulton said.

Between the lines: Members across the caucus' ideological spectrum see the changing of the guard after 15 years as a rare moment in which the power Pelosi and her deputies amassed will be delegated more to the rank-and-file.

  • "I think [Jeffries] ... really appreciates that we have a diverse caucus with lots of perspectives," said Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), a powerful centrist who co-chairs the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
  • Khanna, a prominent progressive, said: "I think it'll be a decentralization of influence in the House and you're going to have many voices speaking out for the House Democrats."
  • Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) said it also presents an opportunity for junior members to hold more sway: “You will have the talent and the thinking and the contributions of many more people. … That’s what new members, particularly, are expecting.”

The other side: Democrats’ uncharacteristically harmonious process stands in stark contrast to the infighting that has engulfed House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) bid for speaker.

  • Five of the GOP conference’s most right-wing members are threatening to deny him the votes he needs on Jan. 3.
  • "I'm not sure that we can entirely pat ourselves on the back and claim that we artfully landed this plane through our great organizing ... some of it is just good fortune," Huffman said of Democrats' relative calm. "But, it is a wonderful place to be."
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