McCarthy and Jeffries forge relationship amid partisan fire

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The working relationship between Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) is notably different than the one the top House Republican had with former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in the last Congress — most simply, that they have one at all.

Pelosi once called McCarthy a “moron” and McCarthy reportedly joked that it would be hard not to hit Pelosi on the head as he took the Speaker’s gavel from her. House Republicans frequently complained that they were left out of the loop on legislation and top negotiations under Pelosi’s reign.

But now, Jeffries and McCarthy are frequently seen huddling off the House floor. McCarthy and other top Republicans have publicly thanked Jeffries for working with them on different issues, such as the China Select Committee and a members’ briefing by the director of the Congressional Budget Office.

“Certainly not going to call them best friends,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a close ally of McCarthy. “But I do think that some degree of communication is important. And they return one another’s calls, which makes it in stark contrast to what has gone on before.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the chairwoman of the House GOP conference, said the McCarthy-Jeffries relationship is “very positive,” and Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), who heads the center-left New Democrat Coalition, said the “very professional” dynamic between the two leaders is “good for Congress and the country.”

McCarthy secured the Speaker’s gavel in January after serving as minority leader under Pelosi for four years, an era during which the two top leaders traded barbs and accused one another of misdeeds.

The tense relationship between the Californians reached a fever pitch in 2021 when Pelosi rejected two of McCarthy’s picks for the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, further straining the already thin association between the top two lawmakers. Pelosi’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Stefanik said the California Republican’s time serving as minority leader and having an icy relationship with Pelosi has helped shape his relationship with Jeffries.

“I think the Speaker’s intention is to treat the minority leader the way that he wanted to be treated when he was minority leader,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) echoed.

McCarthy and Jeffries, for their parts, have spoken positively of the relationship as well.

“We’re building a really strong relationship out of respect to one another,” McCarthy said this week, adding that it is “thousand percent” better than his association with Pelosi in the last Congress.

Jeffries, of course, has made it a regular point to criticize the House GOP, saying last month that it is a “do-nothing, dangerous, dysfunctional, extreme MAGA Republican majority.”

But pressed on if he would categorize McCarthy as an “extreme MAGA Republican,” Jeffries deflected, only saying that “extreme MAGA Republicans are in control right now of the United States House of Representatives.”

“Speaker McCarthy and myself have, you know, agreed to disagree strongly on a whole host of issues, but try not to be disagreeable for the good of the functioning of the institution and the country,” Jeffries told reporters during the House Democrats’ retreat in Baltimore this month. “And I look forward to continuing to try to proceed in that regard.”

Jeffries also has an incentive, in the minority, to forge a good working relationship with the Speaker rather than ignore him. If Democrats want to accomplish anything in this Congress — where Republicans have a slim majority — they have to talk to those on the other side of the aisle.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said that the warmed relationship between the two party leaders is a “good development.”

“We need to try to make sure we can do everything we can to find agreement and work together,” Wasserman Schultz said. “And if you’re not talking, then, you know, that’s not possible. So it’s just super important.”

The relationship between McCarthy and Jeffries, however, has not been without its complications.

Politically speaking, the Californian and New Yorker disagree on nearly every policy issue, spanning from immigration to social matters to their outlook on former President Trump. In their first act under McCarthy, House Republicans passed a bill to rescind an IRS funding boost the Democratic-majority approved in 2022 as part of their marquee piece of legislation.

McCarthy also moved to block Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) from the House Intelligence Committee and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the Foreign Affairs Committee, an echo back to when Pelosi and House Democrats blocked and removed Republicans from committees.

And Jeffries had some pointed words about McCarthy’s controversial decision to hand over tapes from the Capitol riot to Fox News host Tucker Carlson — who downplayed the violence during his prime-time program.

But the pair have maintained a working relationship despite those deep disagreements.

“We continue to have a positive, working relationship,” Jeffries told reporters at a press conference this week when asked if McCarthy’s decision to release the footage altered his trust level with the Californian.

“We both understand that, in that context of working together, whenever and wherever possible, for the good of the institution and the American people, there are going to be times that we disagree,” he continued. “They’re going to be times that we strongly disagree, as is the case with the release of sensitive security video footage to a known conspiracy theorist. That is highly problematic.”

And McCarthy and Jeffries have presented a united front on numerous occasions in recent weeks.

In an attempt to avoid further tit-for-tat on committees, for example, they formed a bipartisan task force designed to come up with ground rules for blocking members from committee posts.

McCarthy and House Majority Steve Scalise (R-La.) publicly thanked Jeffries last week for bringing his members for a briefing by the Congressional Budget Office on the national debt, a hot-button issue that has already pinned Democrats and Republicans against one another ahead of this summer’s looming default deadline.

The same day, when a data breach hit DC Health Link, the two top leaders formed a united front, issuing a joint statement to members and staff and sending a letter to the health exchange requesting more information.

And back in February, McCarthy and Jeffries huddled with the top lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee for a briefing on the Chinese spy balloon that had been shot down over the California coast.

It is those small acts of bipartisanship, McHenry said, that will help rebuild the institution that Republicans argue was chipped away at in previous sessions.

“You have to take first steps and those are the first steps,” he said when asked about building back the functionality of the House. “And the fact that they both want to do it is a good sign.”

“And we’re still gonna have the big debates on policy and the direction of the country and everything else, but those small acts can build over time and build the health of the institution. And, which matters in our system of government,” the North Carolina Republican continued. “The functionality of the House and the Senate really matters for the functionality of our government, and I think this is a positive sign.”

Another significant area of bipartisan cooperation this Congress has been the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, which has vowed to focus on Washington’s competition with Beijing. The House voted to create the panel in an overwhelmingly bipartisan 365-65 vote in January, then McCarthy and Jeffries appointed 13 and 11 members, respectively.

The committee met with McCarthy and Jeffries in the Speaker’s office this week, a gathering that Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the chairman of the panel, described as rare and powerful.

“They both communicated to the members of the China committee that they want it to be a bipartisan effort, and that’s been extremely helpful,” Gallagher said of the top House lawmakers. “And you know, we did a meeting with all the members and both of them, that was really powerful … people don’t see that often, so that’s great.”

“They were sitting right next to each other,” Gallagher noted of the meeting. “It’s good energy, good vibes.”

The newfound working relationship between the leading lawmakers has not gone unnoticed. Rank-and-file House members have perceived a difference in how the House functions with the collegiality among those at the top of the chamber.

“They view politics differently. But they are both guys who start with the idea that something can be done. They’re optimistic go-getters – in that way, their worldview is the same,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) said of the two leaders.

Updated at 8:41 a.m.

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