In tandem, Kevin McCarthy (left) and Hakeem Jefferies (right) take the torch from Nancy Pelosi, who was both Speaker and Leader. Photo credit: CNN and Reuters/Elizabeth Frantz
At the beginning January, Kevin McCarthy of California and Hakeem Jefferies of New York were sworn in as new Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States Congress and Democratic Party Leader, respectively.
These two men, in effect, replace Nancy Pelosi, who was both Speaker and Leader. We know very little about McCarthy and less about Jeffries, except that over their tenure they will fight for public opinion, be the face of each political party in Congress, and walk a high wire as only 4-5 vote switches can shift the approval or rejection of a piece of legislation. This rises to a greater level when one considers that most of the legislation will require passage in a narrowly controlled Democratic Senate and the signature of a Democratic President.
Who are these two men, and why were they elevated to these important roles at this time? What are the issues over which they will likely tangle? What are the larger implications politically for this session of Congress and beyond?
Kevin McCarthy, in his run for the speakership, dealt with about 20 fellow Republican members who either wanted concessions from him or wanted him to step aside. Unfortunately for the GOP, their victory in November provided a minimal cushion of seats. Five defectors and the majority of 222-213 disappeared. Why did these Republicans reject Mr. McCarthy despite having an 84 per cent rating from the American Conservative Union which tracks votes in Congress using a liberal/conservative test? Most of his rating drops because of spending bills. The staunch conservatives on the Republican right oppose any spending they believe to be unnecessary and seek a return to balanced budgets.
McCarthy, as a party leader since 2019, knows that while budgetary restraint is needed, the inevitable government shutdowns, which Democrats gladly manufacture, hurt the party by withholding social security checks, defense allocations, or basic government service funding. As a result, he worked to avoid this conundrum. The purists, like most of those who held up the vote in the House, claim they are operating based on principle and the country cannot continue to build up debt. One can see why finding common ground amongst these disparate interests took so long. Representative Dan Bishop of North Carolina wanted the central power of the speakership to be curbed and massive spending bills to be broken up. Lauren Boebert of Colorado fought for a single member to be able to bring a motion to remove the Speaker (a logistical nightmare if you are in leadership).
Michael Cloud of Texas desired to get the country on a “path toward fiscal responsibility” and noted that he’d “worked for months in high hopes and good faith that our conference would chart a course away from the status quo.” Andrew Clyde of Georgia in a December letter outlined fiscal issues and large spending bills as a major problem. Others opposed to McCarthy included Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, Paul Gosar of Arizona, Andy Ogles of Tennessee, Chip Roy of Texas, Josh Brecheen of Oklahoma, and Eli Crane of Arizona.
McCarthy stepped into the lights in 2021 when he first condemned the protests at the Capitol that coincided with the electoral vote on January 6th, then tried to cozy up to President Trump. Since then, both those on the right of the party and Democrats have eyed him suspiciously, believing him a squish, someone who can be easily swayed.
With the deal comes a number of expectations. The consequences for the Speaker may include reduced powers, accountability to his caucus, and surrender of the agenda to those more interested in holding hearings about the Biden administration than writing legislation (which would involve bipartisanship, something McCarthy’s hold-outs see as close to treason). As some close to the situation theorized, McCarthy eventually played Machiavelli and reasoned he had to accept these demands at the time to solidify his Speakership, but he cannot, in fact, submit to them practically. What will the insurgents do? They can opt for a Democratic speaker, but more likely they will have learned a hard lesson about realpolitik in the 21st century.
As for Jeffries, he represents the 8th Congressional District, surrounding Brooklyn. He has served in the House since being elected in 2012 and rose through the ranks quickly to become the first black leader of a major party in Congress. Besides succeeding Nancy Pelosi, Jeffries is a full-throated progressive and a serial election denier, a fact the mainstream media refuses, for the most part, to report. As Dan McLaughlin, who has done admirable research on Democratic election-denying, reports in National Review:
In fact, Jeffries is one of the House’s most persistent deniers of the legitimacy of elections when he dislikes their outcomes. I will credit the legwork done by the RNC’s research team, which has collected the leading examples. On Twitter and in House hearings, Jeffries called the 2016 election “illegitimate,” arguing that Russia — not American voters — “artificially” made Trump the president. He contended that Trump should be denied the power to appoint Supreme Court justices “with the legitimacy of Trump’s presidential election in doubt.” He claimed that Republicans had stolen at least one House seat, that Trump was a “Russian asset,” and that Trump and Russia were “trying to steal” the 2020 election.
Continuing, McLaughlin reports:
Moreover, Jeffries has argued that the Supreme Court’s decisions are “illegitimate” because of Republicans’ “stealing two Supreme Court seats” by means of the votes of Republican senators. He has not specified whether he thinks those senators were not legitimately elected.
The article goes on to list more of Jeffries’s documented actions on Twitter and in televised interviews. His incendiary rhetoric makes Donald Trump’s trolling tame. Jeffries is a front-rank opponent of democracy except when his side wins. Those GOP members thinking they can roll McCarthy face the unwelcome prospect of Jeffries as Speaker if they sow enough doubt about Republican efforts to lead Congress competently. Nonetheless, Jeffries, as Pelosi’s successor enjoys the broad support of his caucus and should not be underestimated as a rising political force within both the Democratic Party and presidential politics.
As mentioned, there will be fights over spending, support for Ukraine, and oversight of both the government budget and investigations of the President and his administration. The rabid right wants revenge for the Trump investigations and will likely gain some traction for a Hunter Biden committee, but getting to the president, as always, demands a high bar. Inflation, economic performance, immigration, crime, and possibly foreign policy highlight the agenda going forward. The Republicans’ ability to stymie the Biden program, develop an alternative vision, and avoid looking unhinged (no intramural fistfights in the House of Representatives, for example) appears to be the floor for at least extending their lease on control of Congress.
With the goal of winning the White House before them in 2024, it seems obvious the GOP must present a sense of efficient and effective government, one that works for the people. The Democrats’ job, in opposition, figures to involve gumming up the works, pointing out inaccuracies or problems, and presenting themselves as the better alternative for average Americans. One wonders if the progressive agenda within the Democratic Party, including the wokeness of the last few years, will carry as much cache as it did during the Trump years into the early part of the Biden administration. One can count on it if Joe Biden runs again.
As for what this means going forward in 2023 and 2024, the Republican Party faces some choices. If their goal becomes to oppose President Biden, slow down his agenda and force him into executive orders, then they will have at least prevented Biden from advancing his record further which would include the curbing of record spending, some scrutiny of support for the Ukrainian War, and a halt to his curious desire to push “Woke” policies in all government spheres. Investigations will take high priority, especially if it involves the Biden family or Mr. Biden himself. This may or may or may not matter. While it will provide succor to the Trumpists who feel very aggrieved about the impeachments and other investigations, the country usually looks forward, especially when selecting a president.
The continual desire to re-litigate the wounds of 2020 holds the potential of turning off more voters than tuning them in. The highly principled game of demanding a Speaker who will support their cause 100 per cent of the time may seem ideal today, but bear the fruit of revenge and recrimination in 2024. By then the nation will want to turn the page from the troubles of the early twenties and entrust their votes to those offering something better than a return to bitter Beltway bickering and partisan reprisals. If the GOP can find a way, the sooner they get on with governing, the better the chance they will be able to build a record on which to run.
Kevin McCarthy (R) and Hakeem Jeffries (D) now join Chuck Schumer (D) and Mitch McConnell (R) under the spotlight and the political stakes could not be greater.
Dave Redekop is a retired elementary resource teacher who now works part-time at the St. Catharines Courthouse as a Registrar. He has worked on political campaigns since high school and attended university in South Carolina for five years, where he earned a Master’s in American History with a specialization in Civil Rights. Dave loves reading biographies.