House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday that House Democrats will provide the votes for debt ceiling legislation to move through the lower chamber and help to prevent an unprecedented default June 5.
While the House is controlled by Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his Republican conference, a revolt from conservatives means GOP leaders will need Democrats to help move the package through the House and on to the Senate. The precise number remains unknown, but it will likely be in the dozens.
Jeffries did not set a bar for the number of Democrats who would support the package when it hits the floor Wednesday, and he said McCarthy has not asked for one. But he vowed that Democrats would, at the very least, fill in the shortfall created by the defection of the conservatives.
“House Democrats will make sure that the country does not default,” Jeffries told reporters in the Capitol.
Jeffries had been at the table in the earliest stages of the talks, but the negotiations were subsequently pared down to feature only President Biden, McCarthy, and their appointed deputies.
The act of cutting House Democrats out of the direct talks has frustrated members of the caucus, particularly liberals who are critical of the spending cuts, among other provisions, in the final agreement.
Jeffries is well aware of those frustrations and has sought to put most of the responsibility for passing the package on the backs of McCarthy and the majority Republicans who cut the deal with Biden. He said McCarthy had promised the White House that he could deliver two-thirds of the GOP conference — or 148 votes — and Jeffries said he’ll hold the Speaker to it.
“It is my expectation that House Republicans will keep their commitment to produce at least two-thirds of their conference, which is approximately 150 votes,” he said. “Democrats are committed to making sure that we do our part and avoid a default.”
Behind the Progressive and Black caucuses, liberal Democrats had vowed that they would oppose any debt ceiling package that included tougher work requirements for social benefit programs — a threat backed by Jeffries, who called those changes a nonstarter.
The agreement negotiated by Biden and McCarthy would stiffen those rules for programs like food stamps, applying the work requirements to certain able-bodied adults through age 54 — up from the current age of 49.
But as a sweetener for Democrats, the deal also eases the work requirement rules for certain groups of people — including veterans — and exempts Medicaid beneficiaries from the new rules. It’s unclear if those provisions will be enough to win over wary liberals, but Jeffries suggested he is on board, saying the deal “protects incredibly important Democratic interests.”
McCarthy had been under pressure to hold the GOP line on deficit reduction as a condition of raising the debt ceiling, and a number of conservatives — most of them members of the hard-line Freedom Caucus — are furious that the Speaker has endorsed the deal he did.
Rep. Dan Bishop (R-N.C.) said Tuesday that McCarthy should lose his gavel over the negotiation. And Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) fueled those flames, saying a push to oust the Speaker would be inevitable if McCarthy fails to win over at least half of the GOP conference in Wednesday’s vote.
Jeffries declined to say if Democrats would help McCarthy in that situation, or join the conservatives trying to topple him.
“That’s premature,” he said. “Right now we’re focused on making sure that we avoid a catastrophic default.”
The dynamics of this year’s debt ceiling fight mirror those of 2011, when a Democratic president faced off against a Republican Speaker over the thorny issue of deficit spending, and the resulting proposal to prevent a default required support from both parties to move through the House.
In that instance, the minority Democrats split their vote evenly, 95-95, in what appeared to be a choreographed effort to send a signal of support for then-President Obama while simultaneously protesting the deficit-reduction measures demanded by then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio.) and his Republican conference.
This year, Democrats are under additional pressure to protect Biden, whose approval rating is hovering below 40 percent as he heads into his 2024 reelection contest. And Democratic leaders — in both the White House and Congress — appear to be taking no chances as they fight to rally Democratic support and maximize the vote as a boost to the president’s credibility.
Jeffries said House Democrats held a three-hour call Monday to brief the caucus on the details of the deal, and they would stage another three-hour round of virtual briefings Tuesday.
Additionally, top White House officials will be in the Capitol Wednesday to continue the discussion, in person, heading into the vote, Jeffries said. And administration officials “at the highest level” have been in touch with wary lawmakers representing the numerous Democratic factions — including the Black, Hispanic, Asian and Women’s caucuses.
“I’ve been incredibly pleased with the level of authentic engagement from the White House,” Jeffries said.