The complicated relationship between Kevin McCarthy and Hakeem Jeffries

It’s a new era of leadership in the House of Representatives, but the problems will be the same—perhaps even worse.

On the right is rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) set – perhaps – to step up to the role of speaker. On the left is rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) virtually guaranteed to become minority leader for House Democrats.

The move would put two fifty-somethings, both long rumored for the top spots, to the heads of their respective sides of the House floor.

Just don’t expect them to be happy about it.

In a previous congressional life, new leadership may have meant a fresh start. McCarthy and outgoing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) were never on particularly good terms – even though they came from the same state and spent years leading their respective caucuses at the same time. The attack on the Capitol on January 6th only further strained their already tortured relationship.

McCarthy did not even attend Pelosi’s much-anticipated speech when she eventually announced that she would not seek the leadership role again. Many other Republicans showed up, including Steve Scalise (R-LA), No. 2 in the GOP House leadership. McCarthy complained that he had been busy and had no heads-up that her speech would be such an event.

In other words, it was Pelosi’s fault he didn’t show up—not his.

Jeffries and McCarthy do not have the same bitter history. But that doesn’t mean they’re on perfect terms: Jeffries has previously openly criticized McCarthy’s leadership as divisions between Democrats and Republicans in Congress deepened.

As one senior GOP aide put it, Democrats’ ability to work with McCarthy — and McCarthy’s interest in working with them — may be too far gone.

“The level of contempt between McCarthy and any Democrat is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. They have to have a working relationship to some degree, but it seems like no Democrat wants to be in the same room as McCarthy, and McCarthy doesn’t want to be in the same room as any Democrat,” the aide said.

The aide continued that for the benefit of both parties, “this dynamic needs to change.”

Given the margins of the upcoming Congress, there will likely be some hint of a working relationship required between McCarthy and Jeffries. McCarthy will oversee such a slim majority — with such a vocal group of far-right members — that bills like keeping the government running, which must also pass a Democratic Senate and be signed by a Democratic president, will almost certainly require bipartisanship in the House.

Jeffries said on CNN earlier this week that he has not spoken to McCarthy recently. He suggested he had a “warmer” relationship with Scalise, whom the Republican Conference recently nominated to be their new majority leader.

But Jeffries didn’t completely rule out working with McCarthy and the Republicans.

“I look forward to working whenever and wherever possible … with the entire House Republican Conference and leadership team to find common ground to get things done for ordinary Americans to move forward,” Jeffries said before issuing a warning.

“But of course we will fiercely and vigorously oppose any attempt at Republican overreach and any Republican extremism. And I hope that the Republican leadership will learn from the American people’s rejection of extremism across the country and not double down and triple down on it in the next Congress.”

Jeffries, who served four years as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, has worked with Republicans on committees, including on policy issues such as sentencing reform, copyright reform and the First Step Act — a criminal justice reform package passed while Republicans held the House in 2018 .Republicans have spoken highly of his work on bipartisan legislation.

These conditions could give Jeffries some leeway with Republicans under McCarthy’s leadership.

Then again, McCarthy’s role is still much more up in the air than Jeffries’.

Asked on CNN if he thinks McCarthy is suitable for the role of speaker, Jeffries said it is not his decision. But he was quick to point out that McCarthy “seems to struggle to get to 218.”

“Let’s see what happens on January 3,” he added.

Indeed, McCarthy is struggling to maintain the support he needs to be fully elected speaker on January 3rd. Five Republicans in the House – Reps. Matt Gaetz (FL), Bob Good (VA), Andy Biggs (AZ), Matt Rosendale (MT), and Ralph Norman (SC) – have all indicated their intention to vote ‘no’ for McCarthy’s caucus.

McCarthy has appeared in recent days to step up his promises of what he will do as speaker: Remove Democratic members from committees, hold congressional hearings on the border, impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — all red meat for conservatives.

Of course, it is also bound to set the tone for McCarthy’s relationship with the Democrats at the start of the Congress.

Doug Heye, a former top lieutenant for then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and the founder of Douglas Media, told The Daily Beast that it’s hard to guess what Jeffries and McCarthy’s ultimate relationship will be like.

While Jeffries has served in the No. 5 seat for Democrats for two terms now, he is new to ushering in the top spot. But as to whether new management could help quell the toxicity that has filled the house in recent years, Heye was doubtful.

“Our political rhetoric is toxic, and it doesn’t look like it will change in the near future. The incentive structure – financial and in the media – continues to reward extremes,” Heye said.

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