Apr 21, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Hakeem Jeffries emerges as Congress' shadow speaker

Photo illustration of Hakeem Jeffries reflected in a gavel's metal sleeve.

Photo illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) found himself in an unusual position for a minority leader last week: It was he, not the House speaker, who had the ultimate power to decide whether legislation came to the floor.

Why it matters: Democrats got everything they wanted – a $95 billion foreign aid bill, the credit for passing it, and adversaries more divided than ever. In their telling, that total victory wasn't a sure thing.

  • Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a master legislative tactician, heaped praise on her successor: "He is fabulous. We're so proud of him."
  • One senior House Democrat told Axios: "It easily could have fallen apart ... He played the cards the way you'd want to play them."
  • "I would not want to play blackjack against him," the lawmaker added.

What happened: Democrats did something virtually unheard of in modern politics on Thursday, crossing the aisle on the House Rules Committee to save the foreign aid package. They did it again the next day on the House floor.

  • This was all Jeffries' call, as was Democrats' decision to wait until it was clear House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) didn't have the votes on his own before saving the package on the floor.
  • "We wouldn't be voting on this right now if it weren't for Hakeem ... He's the one who created the system that Johnson could follow and get this done," said a House Democrat.

Zoom in: Jeffries' message to his members leading up to the foreign aid fight was to stay unified behind him and not commit themselves to positions on saving Johnson that might box the party in.

  • In other words: To give him all the power and maneuverability that Johnson lacks.
  • The senior House Democrat told Axios: "If he hadn't taken the approach he had, he could have had members going rogue."
  • "He gave us so many options," said Pelosi.

Between the lines: Democratic leadership had already been forging the unified front that would be Jeffries' strongest weapon for weeks with a push to get as many signatures as possible on their foreign aid discharge petition.

  • Jeffries himself sat down with centrist Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine), a skeptic of single-party discharge petitions, to get him to sign. It worked.

What they're saying: House Democrats told Axios the foreign aid fight revealed a deftness in Jeffries – both in public and in closed-door negotiations – that makes him well suited for the speakership.

  • Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) told Axios: "Hakeem has been very graceful. He's not purposefully thrown Johnson under the bus ... He's not been triumphant at all, he realizes how bad that would be for Mike Johnson."
  • "It's a lesson well learned from previous speakers: He finessed it well when he had to," said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.).

What to watch: Many Democrats also told Axios they don't anticipate Jeffries facing the type of revolts from his left flank that Johnson has seen from his right on the motion to vacate and procedural votes.

  • Part of that is his reputation as a coalition builder: "He knows how to engage, uplift and balance all members of his party," said Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a member of the progressive "Squad."
  • "Anybody that wants a phone call or a meeting, we've had it," said one Democrat.
  • The lawmaker predicted the party will change a rule allowing any member to force a vote on ousting the speaker, but said such a vote "would never happen in our caucus even if that rule existed ... he works very closely with [his left flank]."

The bottom line: Johnson "should just pack up and resign and hand the gavel over to Leader Jeffries," said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), a leading Progressive Caucus member.

  • "He seems to be able to manage this process in a much more democratic way – in a way that gets bills to the floor."
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