Speaker or Not, Hakeem Jeffries Is the Leader of the House Right Now

Speaker or Not, Hakeem Jeffries Is the Leader of the House Right Now

Speaker or Not, Hakeem Jeffries Is the Leader of the House Right Now

The Democrat got unanimous party support over three roll call votes. Kevin McCarthy tried to sell his soul, but found no buyer.


Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way.”

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries clearly won the day on Tuesday. He made history as the first Black House caucus leader; it was also the first time (to the best of my fact-checking ability) Brooklyn’s Biggie Smalls was quoted on the House floor. While Republicans savaged one another, Democrats spread love. Jubilant, they looked like they were in the majority, not (narrowly) outnumbered by Republicans. While it’s still extremely unlikely, Jeffries went to bed closer to being House speaker than he was Tuesday morning. Let it be said that in all three roll calls, Jeffries got 212 votes, at least nine more than McCarthy, and only a few shy of what the next speaker will need.

Debased House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy is still not speaker, after three roll call votes in which he actually lost support. What happens when a man tries to sell his soul but finds no buyer? (A question for House Conference Chair Elise Stefanik, too.) McCarthy gave the wing nuts virtually everything they asked for—the ability for only five members to force a vote to oust him as leader, key committee appointments, other rules changes, a gutted ethics committee, the ability to defund federal departments they don’t like. But they didn’t budge, and in fact their numbers climbed from an estimated five in the morning to 20 at 5 pm.

That’s when Representative Tom Cole moved to adjourn until noon on Wednesday. There had been talk that McCarthy and Co. wanted at least one more roll call vote, to “wear down” the opposition. But since the opposite was happening—the opposition was emboldened—most of the House did McCarthy a solid by voting to end his grueling day of trial by procedural combat.

Let it not be said, however, that the divided House GOP majority changed nothing. Shortly after noon on Tuesday, House security officials took down the weapon-detecting magnetometers, installed after January 6, that were intended to make sure no one entered the House chamber with a weapon. So there’s that.

There will be plenty of assessments of McCarthy’s plight after Tuesday, but I want to focus on Jeffries’s victory, even if it only lasts a day. It was also Nancy Pelosi’s: As she turned over her leadership post to Jeffries, she also bequeathed him a caucus schooled in sticking together, left, liberal, and center, when it matters most. I don’t think Beltway reporters addicted to a “Dems in disarray” story line ever understood what Pelosi accomplished, whether it was delivering her whole caucus for the Affordable Care Act in 2010, when the left was itching to bolt, to all the times she kept her members united under Donald Trump, to the selective defections she allowed—by the so-called Squad as well as centrists—as she pushed President Biden’s agenda in the past two years, knowing that certain members might need to go their own way given the proclivities of their districts.

So far, Jeffries hasn’t needed to grant any dispensation to Democrats to vote for someone else as speaker. He won all Democratic votes, in a speaker battle, for the first time since Pelosi did in 2007. That makes sense: Even though he is a liberal not unanimously beloved on the left, he won his caucus leader post by unanimous acclamation. Any reservations members had about him, whether from the left or the center, got subsumed by learned behavior: Being united has paid dividends for Democrats. Why stop now?

Midafternoon Tuesday, several reporters with GOP sources began floating the idea that Democrats might leave the floor, reducing the overall number of votes McCarthy would need to become speaker. (The victor needs a majority of those present and voting for a named candidate, not of the entire House). I called bullshit at the time. It made no sense, given how Republicans were self-immolating. If there were a vital House Democratic center, maybe there would be people trying to cut deals with Republicans. (And while there isn’t, it’s still possible some incompetents are trying.)

Actually, a vital House Democratic center might be approaching Republicans in districts Joe Biden won to get them to vote for Jeffries. There are at least five: in Southern California, central New York, and southeastern Pennsylvania. Maybe Problem Solver Josh Gottheimer can work his magic? I doubt it. In fact, a much-gossipped-about photo capturing Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez chatting amiably with GOP psycho dentist Paul Gosar, who once produced a cartoon of himself killing the Bronx-Queens leader, turned out to show AOC gently disabusing Gosar of the notion that Democrats were ready to walk out and make it easier for McCarthy to win. “Dems in disarray,” d’oh! That message is strong.

It must be said that despite ideological fractures within the Democratic caucus, Jeffries had the unanimous support of the Congressional Black Caucus, and his historic leadership role, by most accounts, trumped policy differences. Progressives bristled last cycle when he joined with Gottheimer to thwart progressive Democratic challengers and refused “to bend the knee to democratic socialism,” as he put it. (As if anyone asked him to.) But when I heard Cori Bush cast her vote for Jeffries the first time, I knew he’d get all 212 Democrats. And he did. Three times.

After a brutal House GOP caucus meeting Tuesday morning, implacable McCarthy foe Matt Gaetz of Florida, who seems to have survived sex trafficking accusations, allegedly said, “I don’t care if we…elect Hakeem Jeffries.” I don’t believe that any more than I believe anything Gaetz says, but it’s still out there. Not counting on it, not betting on it, but whatever happens, Jeffries is in a hugely stronger position after this GOP multiple-vote shit show than he was even when Tuesday began. No matter who becomes speaker, he’s going to be the most important House leader.

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