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Jeffries faces test over whether to help McCarthy

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries faces his most significant test since becoming the chamber’s top Democrat. Will he help save Kevin McCarthy’s speakership?

Ask those close to Jeffries and they say the burden is on McCarthy here. Either McCarthy decides he wants to try to keep his job and makes the necessary overtures — and concessions — to Jeffries, or he doesn’t. But to Democrats — and this is really important — the onus is on McCarthy to reach out and begin those conversations.

There’s a lot happening behind the scenes. Jeffries has shot down our questions recently about how he’d respond to a motion to vacate filed against McCarthy, saying he doesn’t “answer hypotheticals.” But Jeffries and his leadership team have very much been working through the options.

Jeffries won’t announce a decision without first consulting the full House Democratic Caucus. His No. 2, House Minority Whip Katherine Clark, sent a letter to Democrats Sunday afternoon essentially telling everyone to wait for a caucus consensus to emerge.

For Jeffries, there are conflicting political dynamics at play:

McCarthy: Jeffries actually has a pretty decent relationship with McCarthy. And it came after a handshake agreement they made just before the start of this Congress to treat each other better than their recent predecessors had. We wrote all about that in September.

But Jeffries is “really pissed” at McCarthy over how the GOP leader handled the floor debate on the clean CR this past weekend, according to several Democrats close to leadership. And McCarthy’s comments Sunday accusing Democrats of wanting a government shutdown made things much worse.

House Democrats say they privately asked GOP leaders for 90 minutes to scrub the bill and review it with their caucus. They were denied that courtesy, with McCarthy moving immediately for a vote in which he’d need overwhelming Democratic support.

McCarthy’s actions further added to the erosion of trust that began when he walked away from the bipartisan debt limit agreement made this spring with President Joe Biden. Even if McCarthy and Jeffries reach some kind of deal for a coalition style of governing, Democrats worry they can’t trust the speaker to uphold his end of any bargain.

“People have a lot of ambivalence because they don’t trust him,” one senior Democratic aide told us.

Progressives: Jeffries has extremely strong goodwill inside the House Democratic Caucus right now. We can’t overstate that. He’s been a steady, capable hand since taking over for Nancy Pelosi. In fact, Jeffries — some progressives say — is more inclusive than the last leadership regime. Jeffries has also repaired relationships with liberals he used to dismiss as “the far left.”

But progressives hate McCarthy. Many of them think he’s no better than any other leader the GOP conference would elect. So why save McCarthy, they ask? Plus, they’d be helping Republicans look like capable stewards of government, which clearly isn’t true. And keeping McCarthy’s really successful fundraising operation in place — all when Democrats are just a handful of seats away from the majority — is a particularly tough pill to swallow.

“It’s not up to Democrats to save Republicans,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday. “I don’t think we give up votes for free.”

Moderates: Yes, there are some moderates who want to help McCarthy. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) has said as much publicly, and several others have told us the same privately. In some ways, it’s good politics for them back home. And moderates are generally the strongest institutionalists in the party.

And yes, some of them have talked with GOP moderates about ways to make the House work better, including a new rules package that empowers centrists in both parties. There were many other “concessions” being floated over the weekend, but there haven’t been any substantive conversations between McCarthy and Jeffries, and that’s what matters.

Some McCarthy allies vow the California Republican will make no concessions to Democrats. We’ll see how that goes.

Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), who chairs the center-left New Democrat Coalition, told us she thinks Jeffries has all the leverage in the situation.

“McCarthy can’t get to 218,” Kuster said. “At the end of the day, Jeffries is the Wizard of Oz — he is the one behind the curtain.”

One more thing: We’ve covered House Democrats for a long, long time. They have their own share of ideological clashes and party infighting. But burning the place down and seeing what comes next just isn’t in their DNA. In short, they don’t have the “Damn the torpedoes” mentality that many House Republicans do.

That being said, Jeffries and his leadership team are a younger generation. They aren’t as tied to the “institutionalist” school of thought that was the governing bedrock for House Democrats for so long. Stay tuned!

— Heather Caygle

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