In the last 117th Congress, it was no secret in the House of Representatives that the Democratic Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, had so much bad blood between them, they did not even speak to each other. In this Congress Report, congressional expert and Washington journalist, Jamie Stiehm, analyzes the amicable relationship between both new House leaders in the current 118th Congress.

Pelosi vs. McCarthy

The only thing Pelosi and McCarthy had in common was their state, California. Yet they represented opposing strands. Pelosi identifies with the wealthier liberal coastal cities and McCarthy comes from the conservative agricultural Inland Empire.

When Pelosi called McCarthy “such a moron” over his criticism of mask mandates in the House in 2021, that sealed their mutual enmity. However, they etched a historical landmark as the first time the party leaders hailed from the same state.

House Leaders Starting Fresh

The 2022 ascent of Hakeem Jeffries (D–NY) to succeed Pelosi as party leader of the House Democrats – but in the minority – gives the Brooklynite a chance to clear the air between the House leaders.

For his part, McCarthy ascended to a new job, too: he finally won election to the Speaker post he pursued for years when the House flipped in the 2022 midterms.

The two men, each in his fifties, made some House history of their own, by seizing a rare opening for each party leader to start fresh (and untested) at the same time. Starting with a hug they shared at the midnight hour, they are redefining the relationship across the aisle

When McCarthy accepted the symbolic Speaker’s gavel from Jeffries in a highly charged cheering chamber, he publicly pledged that their partisan clashes would never be “personal.”

McCarthy affirms his intent to meet regularly with Jeffries and keep him advised on votes and schedules. His well-known bonhomie, thus far, has stood up to the partisan strain of the Republican narrow House majority, 222-212.

Jeffries responded in kind, recently telling reporters that lines of communication with McCarthy are working out well.

While Jeffries makes it a point to put down “extreme MAGA Republicans” at every weekly press conference, he does not link McCarthy explicitly to that faction of about thirty members, known as the Freedom Caucus.

McCarthy barely made it to claim the House Speakership in January, after the rebellion of the Freedom Caucus forced fifteen floor votes. Few on either side of the aisle will forget his rough baptism over four days and nights.

Led by House Republicans Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Chip Roy of Texas, the far-right Caucus includes Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs of Arizona, and Matt Gaetz, a brash Floridian who openly disparaged McCarthy as a “squatter” in the Speaker’s office before the election was held.

Political Differences

So far, reviewing the McCarthy-Jeffries 2023 record over winter, spring, and summer, the two new leaders found a way to keep their cool despite fierce political differences and stressful debt ceiling negotiations with the White House.

McCarthy handled a series of May talks mostly solo for Republicans, as Jeffries supported President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D–NY) on the sidelines. That was the first big task the Speaker took on in the public eye.

Jeffries and his new liberal leadership team, Minority Whip Katherine Clark of Massachusetts and Caucus Chair Pete Aguilar of California, are a generational shift from the octogenarian old guard of Pelosi, Steny Hoyer (D–MD) and Jim Clyburn (D–SC).

The fresh trifecta project a diverse unity, starting with the marathon Speaker vote when all stood to speak vigorously several times. House Democrats are holding tight to every vote they have, showing a strong party discipline forged under Pelosi.

On the Republican side, Steve Scalise of Louisiana maintains his No. 2 spot and became Majority Leader when McCarthy climbed to House Speaker. Scalise is a familiar face, respected by both sides. There may be an uneasy peace between McCarthy and Scalise, but they manage to hide it in public. Over the summer, Scalise announced he intends to stay in place while receiving treatment for multiple myeloma, a kind of blood cancer.

In the deeply divided “People’s House,” virtually all votes are among party lines. Bipartisanship doesn’t live here.

Scalise is secure and considered an important bridge to the Freedom Caucus. The only true suspense is McCarthy’s tenuous hold on power.

In the tense January drama, McCarthy made a surprising concession to the Freedom Caucus. Any Republican member could call for a referendum on his job, a party vote on the Speaker, at will. His agreement to that spoiler was viewed with astonishment by colleagues.

McCarthy doesn’t just serve at the pleasure of the Freedom Caucus. He serves at the mercy of it. Two formerly vocal members, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, broke away to support McCarthy’s Speakership bid. (Six months later, Greene was ousted from the caucus for her flaring in harsh clashes with other members, most recently Lauren Boebart of Colorado.)

Looking Ahead

McCarthy and Jeffries are keenly aware that trouble lies ahead when the House returns in mid-September. Before the August recess, Jeffries warned that the far-right Republican caucus could try to cause a government shutdown this fall.

The disorganized House is also badly behind the Senate in finishing up committee work on appropriations. Eleven out of twelve bills are locked up in committees, some on contentious social issues.

In that case, a continuing resolution (CR) would be necessary to keep the government open. That requires cooperation between the blue Democratic Senate and the red Republican House.

A failure of government to function is a stalemate in nobody’s interest. Even so, the most likely rupture between McCarthy and Jeffries is the ongoing saga of President Biden’s son Hunter Biden and his mounting legal jeopardy. House Judiciary chair Jim Jordan is leading an investigation into the younger Biden.

Now this: McCarthy just declared that war might break out in the House. An impeachment inquiry into the father and son Bidens may be in the cards. Now that would be wild.

Document Citation
Stiehm, J. (2023). So far, the two new house leaders clearing the air.
Document ID: congrpts-2240-121371-3023071
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