Podcast Bonus Episode: The Future of the House with Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries

January 5, 2023

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Michael Tomasky: I’m Michael Tomasky, editor of The New Republic.

Felicia Wong: And I’m Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute.

Michael Tomasky: And this is How to Save a Country, our podcast on the ideas and the people contributing to a new political vision and a new economic vision for the United States. We connect the economy, democracy, and freedom.

Felicia Wong: Because progressives need a common purpose and a common strategy as we head into 2023. Happy new year, Michael.

Michael Tomasky: And happy new year to you, Felicia.

Felicia Wong: We’re going to kick this off with a little clip from the House chaplain yesterday.

Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben [clip]: So bring this 118th Congress to life and breathe on us the creative work of your Holy Spirit. Give us eyes to see your guiding hand, ears to hear your wise truth, and hearts to hold firmly to the faith we profess in you.

Felicia Wong: So wow, Michael. That’s really quite a clip. I’m not sure who the chaplain thought she was praying to or what kind of divine forces could intervene in this situation that we have before us.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah, I think it’s one that went unanswered.

Felicia Wong: Yes, definitely an unanswered prayer. You know, we’re recording our introduction to this mini-episode today, Wednesday, after a total day of chaos yesterday. I think as the entire nation now knows, the Republicans failed to elect a speaker of the House.

House Clerk Cheryl Johnson [clip]: No persons having received a majority of the whole number of votes cast by surname, a speaker has not been elected.

Felicia Wong: They tried three times.

Johnson [clip]: A speaker has not been elected.

Felicia Wong: They held three different votes.

Johnson [clip]: A speaker has not been elected.

Felicia Wong: It took over five hours and each time Kevin McCarthy, not only couldn’t get enough votes, but he actually got fewer votes than Hakeem Jeffries who leads the Democratic Party.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah, not only that, he went backward, as I’m sure people know by now. The first two roll calls had 19 non-McCarthy votes, and the third one, instead of moving in his direction, moved slightly in the other direction so there were 20.

Felicia Wong: That’s not the momentum he was looking for.

Michael Tomasky: No, sure isn’t. And this is the “red hots,” as I like to call them, the Freedom Caucus people and the rest. They’re holding them hostage, holding the speakership hostage, holding the House hostage, holding the country hostage, you could say that because the people’s business can’t get done until they have a speaker.

Felicia Wong: Michael, you were actually there in the building. You took your press pass, you walked into the Capitol. What did it feel like there? This is normally a pretty basic kind of procedural vote to introduce a Congress, right?

Michael Tomasky: Yeah, and it’s normally very steeped in all these traditions that, depending on how jaundiced one has become by this time in our history, nevertheless, can be stirring in their way because it’s these things that have been done since 1789 when the first Congress convened and every two years since. Let me put it this way, when I was a younger person, I was stirred by these things.

Felicia Wong: Does the chaplain always sound so imploring of divine intervention?

Michael Tomasky: The mood was very edgy. Of course the mood was really different on two sides of the room. The Democrats were giddy, even though they’re the minority and know they’re going to be the minority and know they’re not going to elect the speaker. They were just delighted with themselves that they were all voting for the same person.

Pete Aguilar [clip]: For unity in Congress and progress in our country, Democrats are united behind Hakeem Jeffries.

House Democrats [clip]: [chanting] Hak-eem, Hak-eem, Hak-eem Hak-eem.…

Michael Tomasky: And that the Republicans were so divided and so they were having a great time. The Republicans looked like they were being forced to eat cockroaches. It was a fascinating day.

Felicia Wong: Yeah. Well that person who got all those votes, Hakeem Jeffries is the person we’re going to hear from in our clip in just a minute, but I kind of get that giddiness, on the one hand. I think 48 hours ago, I’d been like, “Let’s get out the popcorn. What’s going to happen?” There’s a lot of schadenfreude and other kinds of things if you’re a progressive or if you’re a Democrat.

But I actually feel a lot less like that right now, Michael, because I think that this chaos really matters. It’s going to matter because it’s just this harbinger of what’s to come or what’s not to come.

I’m afraid that this Congress will literally not be able to do any business. They won’t be able to pass a budget. There is going to be a looming debt ceiling fight, which has, for the last decade, been something that Republicans have used to hold our nation’s finances hostage, and it’s only going to get worse. That’s obvious now that we see that literally chaos is the point for these red hots so I’m really worried about that.

Michael Tomasky: Especially the debt ceiling. As you say, it was 2011 when the Republicans in the House, they took over the House in the 2010 elections. Of course, that was the big Tea Party election and then comes the spring of 2011, late spring, early summer, and it was time to vote on another debt limit increase and for the first time that anybody could remember in the modern history of the country, in the history of the country, the opposition party attached specific conditions to voting.

Felicia Wong: Yeah. A lot of spending cuts because it was about making the government smaller, shrinking government. That’s been their project for, I don’t know, 90 years as far as I can see.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah and so it ended up with what we called the sequestration cuts, which are still in effect by the way, most people don’t know this, they don’t get written about anymore. They’ve done that whenever they’ve had the opportunity, yet we’ve always pulled back from the brink.

Felicia Wong: The Treasury has not yet defaulted on our obligations.

Michael Tomasky: Right, right, right.

Felicia Wong: If they’re going to hold Kevin McCarthy hostage, imagine the next time the debt ceiling comes up, which will probably be in the summer of 2023, the summer of this year.

Michael Tomasky: I covered all these debt crises over the last few years, talking to people, among whom the general consensus was, “Well, they really wouldn’t do it at the end of the day,” meaning the Republicans wouldn’t really threaten the full faith and credit of the United States at the end of the day.

Felicia Wong: Yeah but now that you’ve seen what happened in the chamber yesterday, what do you think?

Michael Tomasky: No, now it’s different. I think now it could easily be different.

Felicia Wong: We’re trying to save a country, Michael, so maybe we should hear from Hakeem Jeffries, who has something a little bit more positive to say, at least about some of our members of Congress and their ability to get things done.

Michael Tomasky: Good idea.

Congressman, I want to ask you about the Democratic caucus of which you are chair. Let’s put it this way, if you put our ideological spectrum in this country from one to 10, the Democratic caucus runs from probably one-and-a-half to six-and-a-half, and the Republicans run from nine to 10 or nine to 12, probably some of them. With that diversity of views, how big are the differences within the caucus?

Hakeem Jeffries [clip]: Well we are a big family, a diverse family, an enthusiastic family, and that’s a good thing because I think we most closely and broadly reflect the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations, the fears, the concerns, the anxieties, and in the words of the Framers, the passions of the people, because we most closely mirror the people in terms of, whether that’s diversity on account of race or gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identification, life experience, region, or even ideology, from the center, the center left, moderates, centrists, all the way to progressive and very progressive members. That’s what makes us who we are and I think–

Felicia Wong: It’s the funnier job, I’m sure.

Jeffries [clip]:  Well I think we should all lean into it because what we’ve seen is that we can have sometimes noisy discussions about the right way to go about getting something done. But in this 117th Congress, we’ve always found the highest common denominator after the debates and the discussions are over to get something over the finish line legislatively that advances the ball for the American people.

Felicia Wong: So Michael, I noticed that Jeffries used the word noisy to describe the debate that the Democrats have and will continue to have, and I don’t know, Republicans feel like they’re a little bit more than noisy these days.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah. Chaos is the word for the Republican side, I think at least, at least this week and probably going forward. As for the Democrats, it’ll be interesting to me, Felicia, to see what moving into the minority does to their unity. I think it may fray that unity a bit. In other words, for the first two years of the Biden administration, they had a goal that kind of forced them all to row the boat in more or less the same direction.

Felicia Wong: Build Back Better

Michael Tomasky: Yeah. Build Back Better, Inflation Reduction Act, all the things that they passed that you and I have talked about a lot on this show, and I think that kept the public infighting to something of a minimum. We saw some, particularly around the hard infrastructure bill and the attempts by the progressives to link that to Build Back Better.

Felicia Wong: Yeah but they came together relatively quickly.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah, they did, but they voted, a few of them voted against the hard infrastructure bill. Anyway there was some of that, but it was pretty minimal.

Felicia Wong: That’s what was what I was trying to say. They ended up coming together pretty quickly.

Michael Tomasky: Right. So now you know now that they don’t control the agenda and that there’s no realistic shot of passing legislation and the Republicans control the calendar so they can control what they can bring to the floor, and they can try to bring things to the floor that will expose the fissures within the Democratic Party. It’ll just be interesting to see how the party hangs together and Jeffries is going to have a slightly tougher job than Pelosi had over the last couple years. What do you think?

Felicia Wong: I think most of the policy goals right now are going to turn to implementation of all the 2022 laws, but I do think they have a political goal, whether it’s as direct as passing a piece of legislation, obviously not, but they do have a goal. The Democrats do have a goal, and that goal is the election of another Democratic president, presumably the reelection of President Biden, we don’t know, and that has a lot to do with their own electoral fortunes because all of them are going to be up for reelection also in 2024. So maybe it’s not a legislative goal, but I think there is that North Star for them politically.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah, it’s clearly 2024. You’re right about that and we’ll get word from Biden world pretty quickly on what his plans are.

Felicia Wong: Yeah. They said over Christmas they were going to.

Michael Tomasky: Yeah, so I think we have to assume he’s probably going to say he’s going to run for reelection.

Felicia Wong: Yeah, that’s what I think too.

Michael Tomasky: That’ll keep the party more united, than the opposite, because obviously if he didn’t run, then that opens it up for 10 or 15 people to run, crossing a very broad ideological spectrum.

Felicia Wong: That would be pretty noisy, Michael. That’d be a pretty noisy 2024. But anyway, like we said the last time we talked with you all, all the way back in 2022, we really want to hear from you about these bonus episodes and just like what’s on your mind as we think about saving our country.

Michael Tomasky: You can tweet at either of us. I’m @MTomasky.

Felicia Wong: And I’m @FeliciaWongRI. Let us know what you think because we are about to head into season 2 of How to Save a Country.

Michael Tomasky: In the meantime though, we have another mini-sode coming up with a moment from our interview with Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Felicia Wong: This time talking about crypto.

How to Save a Country is a production of PRX in partnership with the Roosevelt Institute and The New Republic.

Michael Tomasky: Our coordinating producer is Cara Shillenn. Our lead producer is Alli Rodgers. Our executive producer is Jocelyn Gonzalez. Our mix engineer is Pedro Rafael Rosado.

Felicia Wong: Our theme music is courtesy of Codey Randall and Epidemic Sound. Other music is provided by APM. How to Save a Country is made possible with support from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that’s reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at omidayar.com.

Michael Tomasky: Support also comes from the Hewlett Foundation’s Economy and Society Initiative, working to foster the development of a new common sense about how the economy works and the aims it should serve. Learn more at hewlett.org.

To kick off a new year and a new congressional term, we’re bringing you a previously unaired clip from our conversation with Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, now minority leader in the House.

Leader Jeffries gives his take on divisions within the Democratic Party and its wide spectrum of beliefs. “We’re noisy,” he says, but we “get something over the finish line.” But first, Michael and Felicia discuss the Republican struggle to elect a House speaker, and talk about the long-term implications of that party’s apparent inability to get the basics of governing done. Spoiler alert: It isn’t likely to be pretty.

Presented by the Roosevelt Institute, The New Republic, and PRX. Generous funding for this podcast was provided by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. Views expressed in this podcast do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of its funders.

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