Democrat Hakeem Jeffries steps up as House Republicans roast Johnson

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the Democratic minority leader in a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Hakeem Jeffries’ influence is normally limited. This week, he may be the most powerful person in Congress.

That is because the chamber’s embattled speaker, Republican Mike Johnson, is expected to need the support of Jeffries’ opposition Democrats to fend off an effort by hardline members of his own party to topple their second party leader in just eight months.

A small band of hardline Republicans made history in October when they ousted their speaker from the role for the first time ever, setting off a messy weeks-long leadership fight that brought the chamber to a halt. Now firebrand Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene wants to try the same move on Johnson.

“House Republicans are either unwilling or unable to get Marjorie Taylor Greene and extreme MAGA Republicans under control and so it’s going to take a bipartisan coalition and partnership,” Jeffries, 53, told reporters last week. He confirmed that members of his own party would vote to support Johnson — a highly unusual move — to prevent a replay of last year’s chaos.

Democrats hope to erase Republicans’ narrow 217-212 majority in the Nov. 5 elections, which would allow them to elect Jeffries as the first-ever Black speaker of the House, a role second in line to the presidency after the vice president. Some are already calling the New York lawmaker a “shadow speaker.”

“Jeffries has done a good job in keeping us unified and building consensus. He governs with a light touch and solicits members’ opinions,” said Democratic Representative Ro Khanna in a recent interview.

Representative Pramila Jayapal, who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called Jeffries “an incredible leader.”


But Jayapal said she expects to get something in return if members of her party are going to support a political rival.

“My concern is that this speaker is anti-choice, anti-democracy, anti-immigrant and we are going to have to go back to people and explain why we would have saved the speaker,” she said an interview last week.

Johnson drew the ire of his party hardliners by working with Democrats to pass bills averting a government shutdown and providing additional aid to Ukraine.

Still, Jayapal said she’d expect to see further concessions if Democrats protect Johnson, rattling off demands such as renewing an expiring “Affordable Connectivity Program” that helps low-income households afford broadband service.

Ousting Johnson, and triggering a replay of October’s House chaos, could pose a political risk for Republicans in an election year, one reason their presidential candidate, Donald Trump, voiced concern about the move.

Even Trump’s words have not soothed hardline Republicans angry that Johnson, a fourth-term conservative from Louisiana, has not taken a harder line.

“There was nothing in his prior life, political or private, that qualified him for this job. He is a lost ball in tall weeds,” said far-right Republican Representative Thomas Massie, who is backing Greene’s effort.

Jeffries, whose leadership bid was backed by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has far less trouble from his own caucus, though as a minority leader his job has been easier than Johnson’s, as he has not had to drive the House agenda and deal with all the political pitfalls that go with it.

One Democratic aide who asked not to be identified said, “It’s easy to look great when you’re standing to the side of the three-ring circus.”

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)