Hakeem Jeffries Officially Becomes First Black Leader Of A Major Party In U.S. Congress
The New York politician is now the leading Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives
January 07, 2023 at 8:31 pm
Early Saturday, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries officially became Democratic Party leader in the House of Representatives. Jeffries, a rising star within the Democratic Party, is now the first Black person to lead either of the major parties in Congress. He takes over at a time of divided government and political dysfunction on Capitol Hill.
A rising star of a new generation in Congress
Jeffries has represented the 8th District of New York since 2013. During his decade in office, the congressman made a name for himself by championing legislation, including an ongoing push to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and legislation to improve the process by which presidents grant pardons and commutations. Jeffries quickly rose up the ranks with his party. He was elected Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus in 2019, and many pundits saw him as the favorite to replace California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi as leader of the party in the House.
At 52, Jeffries represents a generational shift as he takes over from Pelosi, 82, who serve as Democratic leader for the past 20 years. The New York Congressman, who has been known to quote Biggie Smalls on the House floor, thus adds a more youthful element to congressional leadership at a time when Capitol Hill is undergoing a period of transition and uncertainty.
Coming into power in the middle of political turmoil
Jeffries new position makes him minority leader as Republicans take over the House with a very narrow majority after picking up seats in the 2022 election. The transitions of party control and leadership have gone quite roughly for the GOP. New Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy faced an embarrassing situation when a number of his fellow Republicans, allied with the right-wing Freedom Caucus within the House, initially refused to vote for him as Speaker. This was the first time in 100 years that a potential Speaker was rejected by the members of the House. In fact, it took 5 days and 15 rounds of voting for McCarthy to eventually win the position.
Adding to the embarrassment, while Republicans cast their votes for several different representatives, every Democrat in the House voted for Jeffries for the Speaker position in each vote. This created an awkward situation where Jeffries received the most Speaker votes in each of over a dozen ballots though falling just short of the majority needed to win the role.
The ABCs of Democratic leadership vs Republican extremism
After McCarthy eventually secured enough Republican votes to be elected Speaker, Jeffries was formally named House Minority Leader. Around 1am Saturday morning, Jeffries gave an impassioned speech announcing the principles of his Democratic caucus going forward and contrasting them with the Republicans. In the face of Democratic cheers and Republican boos, Jeffries went down a list from A to Z, announcing that Democrats “will always put American values over autocracy, benevolence over bigotry, the Constitution over the cult, democracy over demagogues, economic opportunity over extremism, freedom over fascism, governing over gaslighting…voting rights over voter suppression, working families over the well-connected, xenial over xenophobia, ‘yes we can’ over ‘you can’t do it’ and zealous representation over zero-sum confrontation” amongst many other contrasts he named as he went down the alphabet.
Best part of Hakeem Jeffries’ speech pic.twitter.com/Ha8wfv2mc6
— ✶ Ⓜ️𝕒𝕣𝕔𝕦𝕤 ▶️ ✶ (@_MarcusD3_) January 7, 2023
Challenges and opportunities as minority leader amidst Republican control
With the right wing of the Republican Party clearly willing to bully the rest of the GOP into getting its way, Jeffries’ new role as opposition leader means that he will be spending much of his time as a voice against Republican extremism. Republicans have already declared their intentions to use their control of the House to launch investigations and possibly even impeachment hearings against members of the Biden administration, including possibly the president and Vice President Kamala Harris themselves.
These investigations and hearings are unlikely to produce much in the end – many of them are based on dubious facts and conspiracy theories, and Democratic control of the Senate provides a clear check on the Republican agenda. But Republicans are hoping to score political points through public scrutiny of the Biden administration and government agencies, and Jeffries and his fellow Democrats will seek to instead turn the story into one of Republican extremism and wasting of taxpayer resources on frivolous witch-hunts.
However, the closely divided House also presents the opportunity for some bipartisan cooperation. Since Republicans will have a hard time passing legislation with their razor-thin majority, and an even harder time crafting bills that won’t be rejected by the Democratic Senate, there may be opportunities for some House Republicans to reach out to Democrats and find compromise. Jeffries, who so far has done a great job keeping his party united, would lead any such efforts from the Democrats’ side of the aisle. Thus, House Minority Leader Jeffries will have his work cut out for him in his groundbreaking new role.