Dec 1, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Jeffries' progressive bridge-building

Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Hakeem Jeffries at a committee hearing.

Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) at a House Judiciary Committee hearing in 2020. Photo: Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images

Newly elected Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) has been sitting down with leading House progressives, including at least three members of the "Squad," as he prepares to lead the caucus into the post-Pelosi era, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: A major task Jeffries will have as minority leader will be maintaining unity within his caucus — a fractious array of business-friendly moderates and urban progressives that spans a range of demographic divides.

Driving the news: Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said she had a "really good conversation" with Jeffries on Tuesday and has encouraged him to "sit down with some of the key members in the left part of the caucus to make sure he builds his own relationship[s]."

What we're hearing: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) told Axios she met with Jeffries this month and signaled more to come, calling it their "first meeting." Asked if Jeffries is someone she can work with, she replied: "I think that's something we'll learn."

  • Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), another Squad member, told Axios she's had "multiple meetings" with Jeffries. "I just appreciate being approached," Bush said. "He acknowledged that, you know, 'You're a part of the caucus, too.'"
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said she's had "a couple" of meetings with Jeffries, with another planned on Wednesday "just to strategize [about] ... how to tackle the work ahead of us in the minority."

Remember: Jeffries is in the Progressive Caucus along with his incoming No. 2, Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.). According to Jayapal, he is a member in good standing because he has "met all the tests" on issues like Medicare for All.

Yes, but: Jeffries' history with the left flank of his party has been fraught at times. "The extreme left is obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter," he told the New York Times last year.

  • Jeffries also launched a PAC last year with several other Democrats, including centrist Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), to help House incumbents fend off primary insurgents. Members like Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), who both unseated longtime establishment Democrats in Jeffries' home state, were once those insurgents.
  • "[Jeffries is] someone who is not afraid to say 'no' to some people in our party," moderate Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) said in an interview with Axios. "He certainly hasn't been catering to the far left."

Context: Jeffries' predecessor, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), had a similarly complex relationship with progressives — often like-minded on policy but at odds on politics and style.

What they're saying: Several House progressives told Axios they are hopeful Jeffries — who is seen by colleagues as a model coalition builder — can earn the left's trust.

  • "Surely there are going to be policies and approaches we disagree on, and I'm going to continue to push him," Bowman said. "But, you know, conversations I've had with him since I've been here, he's been a big help, he's been a mentor, and I'm looking forward to working with him."
  • "I have high hopes for Hakeem," said outgoing Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.). "He's somebody who understands the full spectrum of the Democratic caucus."
  • Jayapal said of Jeffries' past comments about the left: "I hope he doesn't continue to use some of that language, because ... it's not actually reflecting what I think he believes about progressives."

Between the lines: Progressives see the generational changing of the guard as a prime opportunity to exert new influence on policy.

  • Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) laid out some of the progressives' policy pushes: "We want to have hearings on Medicare for All, we want to have hearings on free public college ... we're pushing on a $15 minimum wage."
  • "This idea that somehow we are the 'problem child' is just ridiculous," said Jayapal. "I think [Jeffries] agrees with me that we are not the Freedom Caucus. We are not trying to blow things up. We like to govern, we like to push for as much as we can get."

The big picture: "I have no issues with any member of the House Democratic Caucus and have been supportive of everyone electorally, whether they are center, center-left or the more left part of our caucus," Jeffries told reporters during a sit-down on Tuesday night.

  • With regards to his PAC, Jeffries said he will "continue to be supportive of every single House Democratic incumbent who faces an electoral challenge."
  • And on legislating, he said: "It's going to be important to bring everyone together to continue to be unified, because we've got a common objective, which is to defend the priorities of President Biden ... and take back the House."
  • "There's nothing more unifying than being in the minority," he added.
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