When President Joe Biden sits down with the top congressional leaders on Tuesday, he will see some familiar faces: Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, and Kevin McCarthy, with whom he’s engaged in a high-stakes standoff.
The fourth principal, Hakeem Jeffries, is a different story.
The House minority leader is not a longtime collaborator with the president. In fact, he has a largely undefined relationship with Biden. He has been something of a side player in the debt ceiling drama that is quickly approaching a fiscal doomsday cliff. And the White House — sticking to a no-negotiation on the debt ceiling posture — has had little need to lean on him.
But with talks set to pick up steam, the New York Democrat could soon be playing a more pivotal role. Should a compromise bill be reached between the White House and congressional GOP leadership, it would almost assuredly require some — if not many — House Democratic votes to get through that chamber.
Two years ago, the solution for Biden would have been easy: Let then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi — the premier vote wrangler of her generation — do the work. Now it’s on Jeffries, someone the White House is still getting to know. The two only had their first known substantive meeting this past January, when Biden huddled with the top Democratic leaders at the start of the new Congress.
In short, the first pivotal test of his and Biden’s ability to work together could take place with the global economy on the line. And how that goes will provide an early glimpse of what Democrats hope will be the dominant partnership in Washington in 2024 if Biden wins a second term and Democrats win back the House. Not everyone in the party is sure of what to expect.
“All of this is going to need a level of coordination we haven’t yet seen,” said a senior Democratic House aide. “This will be the first time things are tested.”
Jeffries, the first Black lawmaker to ever lead a party in Congress, is nearly 30 years Biden’s junior — he was all of 2 years old when Biden arrived in Washington for his first Senate term.
Their lack of shared history is evident in how little the two have talked about each other in public. For a man who loves to riff on the political leaders he knows well, the only anecdote Biden has shared publicly about Jeffries is that, as vice president, he campaigned for him in 2012. Jeffries returned the favor during Biden’s presidential race in 2020.
Two days before the election as they campaigned together outside Philadelphia, the two men engaged in small talk that quickly turned serious, as reported in “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden, and the Battle for America’s Future.” Biden warned that if they don’t win, “I’m not sure we’re going to have a country.”
Neither party would say how frequently Jeffries and Biden communicate directly. But they have held at least two calls — one of which has not been previously reported — in late April that included Schumer as the debt limit debate ramped up, according to a person familiar with the conversations.
In interviews with a dozen lawmakers, senior aides and administration officials, a picture is painted of a relationship that’s been largely positive (with some brief missteps) but still very much developing. Those close to Jeffries and Biden say that communication is frequent between both camps from principals to senior staff. They point to their similar messaging and strategy on debt limit — so far. Jeffries is also in regular contact with White House chief of staff Jeff Zients through meetings and calls. The two had a long working lunch two weeks ago to discuss the debt limit, according to a senior administration official granted anonymity to speak freely.
The president “has a strong relationship with Leader Jeffries and a great deal of respect for the masterful job he’s doing as head of the House Democrats and holding Republicans accountable for their extreme MAGA agenda, like forcing the most draconian cuts to veterans in American history in order to cut taxes for the rich,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates.
In a statement to POLITICO, Jeffries praised Biden.
“He’s a good man, visionary leader and transformational president who has been there for me since I arrived in Congress,” he said. “House Democrats look forward to our continued work together to make life better for everyday Americans.”
Overshadowing the Biden-Jeffries relationship is the absence of Pelosi. For years — decades even — Biden world and its Democratic predecessor were able to rely on Pelosi’s political acumen to help shepherd tough bills and must pass legislation through that chamber. The trust built over time was so profound that it altered White House whip operations. In Nancy we trust, the saying went.
Jeffries, in some ways, is just now building a working relationship with the Biden White House, though Louisa Terrell, director of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, said Biden’s relationship with Pelosi helped lay the foundation for what’s being built now.
“We felt like we had built a scaffolding around how we work together and the ease in which the president could pick up the phone, the ease in which we all did our work together, and we went right into the 118th with that,” Terrell said in an interview. “We have a proof point” that it can be productive, she said, pointing to the legislative accomplishments of the last Congress, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, bipartisan infrastructure law and semiconductor policy.
Still, there is evidence of growing pains. Back-to-back episodes of mixed messages on Biden’s position on high profile legislation earlier this year rankled House Democrats who felt the White House blindsided them — one on a GOP-backed bid to repeal changes to the D.C. criminal code and the other on efforts related to Covid restrictions.
Privately, rank-and-file House members and senior aides blamed the White House for misreading the potency of the issues. They call the incidents frustrating but have largely moved on. Since then, the White House has provided clear and early Statements of Administration Policy on hot-button Republican bills, including legislation to prohibit transgender girls from participating in women’s sports.
Jeffries refused to criticize the White House in either instance. When pressed by CNN shortly after the two bills moved, he described Democrats as “incredibly unified.”
Terrell also pointed to unified messaging on more recent policies, such as the Texas ruling on abortion medication, as proof of that positive relationship.
“What I really care about is: Are we all talking to each other? Are they getting the information they need? Are we hearing from them and what they’re hearing from their constituents? How do we fight in these really hard fights and frankly, how do we take back the House?” she said.
To that end, the White House legislative staff participates in at least seven regular “check-ins” with House leadership staff and seven weekly meetings with various groups, including House staff directors and caucuses.
Biden has told leadership and rank-and-file members to use an older means of technology to communicate with the White House.
“We’ve heard the president say: you literally have the bat phone, please call anytime,” Terrell said. “My door’s always open to you. My phone is always open to you. I know how meaningful it is to [have a] back and forth.”
Jeffries’ first true test as minority leader will be ensuring House Democrats stay aligned in backing Biden’s position against bargaining on raising the debt limit. The more significant obstacle will come much closer to the so-called X-date — when the government runs out of money and can’t pay its bills.
Before Tuesday’s meeting was arranged, a handful of moderate Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, broke ranks publicly and said Biden needs to get to the negotiating table. Ahead of the meeting, Democrats are largely aligned in arguing that Republicans should lift the debt ceiling without conditions and then hold a separate negotiation on the budget.
Only three weeks out from default, Jeffries refused to commit House Democrats to supporting any deal struck between Biden and McCarthy but he insisted they’re in line with the president.
“We’re in lockstep right now in terms of the path forward that President Biden laid out,” he said Sunday on “Meet the Press.” “Ultimately, everyone evaluates on the merits, on any particular piece of legislation, that is presented to us.”
If a deal is hatched, Biden will almost certainly need at least some votes from House Democrats, as House Republicans are likely to balk at a compromise that moves substantially off of the bill that they passed.
At that juncture, Jeffries brings some attributes to the table. He has a working relationship with McCarthy, including texting and coordinating on some joint statements, such as a recent statement calling on Russia to release political prisoners Evan Gershkovich and Paul Whelan.
He also has strong support among his rank-and-file.
“Hakeem’s got a good relationship with everyone in the caucus,” said Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.). Comparing the Senate minority party with the House minority, “McConnell’s sort of backed away, and Hakeem’s been engaged. … I think Hakeem’s the right guy.”
While allies acknowledge that Jeffries — and his relationship with Biden — has yet to be tested and he will likely face difficult comparisons to Pelosi as he moves forward, there is a willingness within the caucus to give him space and trust.
“Jeffries has done a great job so far,” said Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a fellow New York Democrat. “We’re going to have to find common ground and collaboration; he is clear eyed about that. He’s not going to bet and risk destroying our economy or cutting things to the most vulnerable people among us.”
Bowman said he’s confident Jeffries and Biden are on the same page. And he pushed back on the idea that the new leadership role or the high-stakes fiscal standoff have put any new amount of pressure on him.
“He’s been a Black man in America his entire life. He’s had to operate in white patriarchal spaces,” he said. “It’s not always easy for people of color and women to operate in those spaces and thrive — he has done so. I’m sure his approach is: I gotta always bring my A game.”