How House Democrats Went from Angry at Biden to Rallying around the White House

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on May 31, 2023.

A week ago, House Democrats were furious at what they saw as an abdication of the political battle in the negotiations with Republicans on a debt-and-budget deal.

In a caucus meeting May 23, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) told Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) that President Biden needed to deliver a national address to attack the GOP’s threats to tank the global economy and impose bad policy on the working poor.

Yet, when the final vote was finally held late Wednesday, Democrats delivered 165 votes – almost 80 percent of the caucus – in favor of the Biden-led compromise. That’s a bigger haul than Republicans, who provided 149 votes, or two-thirds of their caucus.

And that came hours after Democrats bailed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) out by helping clear a procedural hurdle that traditionally is only passed with votes from the majority.

“This deal is far from perfect, it does still have impact on people that I represent and all across the country, but it avoids some of the most cruel proposals that were made by Speaker McCarthy and the House Republicans,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, told reporters Wednesday in between the procedural vote and final passage.

“For that reason, I made sure that we had the votes to get it done.”

The change in tone served as a remarkable turnaround for a House caucus that is younger, more diverse and more liberal than the octogenarian president who previously served 36 years in the Senate. Despite those differences, House Democrats appreciate the president more than outsiders realize.

“This is yet another time that Biden was underestimated and delivered, and it’s in a long line of them,” Rep. Darren Soto (D-Fla.) said after the final vote.

And the support signaled an embrace by rank-and-file Democrats of the new House leadership trio of Jeffries, Minority Whip Katherine M. Clark (D-Mass.) and Caucus Chairman Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), who had less than three decades of combined experience when they took over in January.

“I think the leadership did a good job. I think Jeffries speaking in the caucus . . . was very compelling about how this bill had to pass,” Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who served 20 previous years as the caucus’s No. 2, said of the new minority leader.

Not every Democrat is happy. After the final vote, about a dozen members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus held a news conference on the House steps to blast what Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the chairwoman of the caucus, called “hostage-taking” by Republicans. And some Democrats who are usually reliable leadership allies suggested that even small concessions to this crop of Republicans only encourages future threats against the federal government in exchange for conservative policy wins.

“You can celebrate all you want tonight because you dodged a bullet, but there are plenty of bullets headed your way now,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said after voting against the bill.

But over just a few days, the overall sentiment of the caucus shifted dramatically toward supporting the measure due to an effort led by Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar in coordination with advisers to Biden.

This trio, all first elected to office in 2012 or after, replaced three octogenarians who had more than 105 years’ experience combined: Hoyer, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.). The three elders are Biden’s contemporaries and have genuine friendships dating back decades.

In Biden’s first two years in office, rank-and-file House Democrats sometimes felt neglected, as so much of the president’s agenda hung on how a few centrist senators voted. But they developed strong ties to his first chief of staff, Ron Klain, a longtime figure in Washington politics, and they had a deep connection to Biden’s legislative affairs office, including a former top aide to Hoyer, Shuwanza Goff.

And they knew that Pelosi, Hoyer or Clyburn could deliver a blunt message, if necessary.

This year, however, Klain left and was replaced by Jeffrey Zients, a millionaire who never worked on Capitol Hill, and Goff left for the private sector. Many rank-and-file Democrats began to worry they were being taken for granted by the White House.

That worry turned into anger in mid-May as Biden traveled through Japan and his top advisers adhered to the old school way of negotiations – staying quiet – while McCarthy and his deputies kept giving public portrayals of the talks going their way.

Early last week, after much venting, the new Democratic leadership team took its own more aggressive approach in the media. And once the deal was announced last weekend, Aguilar’s team ran conference calls and Zoom sessions between administration officials and lawmakers.

Slowly but surely, Democrats realized something: The final deal avoided the disaster of defaulting on the debt, averted most of the conservative policy pain that Republicans initially demanded, and actually secured a few key wins for the Democratic agenda.

“Both on their extreme cuts, plus the threat of defaulting in America, you see what we were able to prevent. And in this deal, then you realize that we didn’t fare so bad,” Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) said.

Far from McCarthy’s public characterization of “zero” wins for Democrats, liberals found a few things to like. Even the increased work requirements for some welfare recipients were offset by expanded eligibility to veterans and some other at-risk adults.

“That is a permanent benefit, whereas the increase in the age requirement is something that will sunset,” Horsford said. “We need to do our job to win the majority back so that we can repeal that onerous requirement.”

Ruiz served as the lead sponsor of the Pact Act, legislation to help military members exposed to toxins from burn pits. He recalled his discussion last year with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who oversees the panel funding veterans issues, in which they both had concerns about long-term funding for the program.

Republicans in the debt ceiling deal agreed to a total of $45 billion in funding over the next two years in the account for this program.

“We have permanently funded a guaranteed health-care fund for toxic-exposed veterans. It’s just, it’s historic,” Wasserman Schultz said Wednesday.

She credited the party’s messaging effort, soon after the late April passage of the GOP’s initial plan to cut $4.8 trillion in funding, as critical to highlighting how those cuts would have inevitably led to steep cuts to the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Republicans in districts that Biden won in 2020 panicked at that line of attack, prompting GOP leaders to promise to protect VA funding in the final compromise.

“It happened because we shamed them into it,” Wasserman Schultz said.

By the time Democrats gathered with Biden’s team in its basement meeting room in the Capitol on Wednesday morning, the mood had shifted heavily toward supporting the compromise. Jeffries explained they needed to vote yes because it is “the right thing.”

“They may have won a handful of skirmishes,” Jeffries told Democrats, according to the notes of a Democrat in the room, who provided them on the condition of anonymity to detail internal conversations.

“We won this battle,” he added.

The only drama left was helping McCarthy clear the initial procedural vote, given he faced dozens of no votes on his far-right flank. If that vote failed, the entire legislation would stall.

Jeffries declined to address what concessions he received in exchange for helping pass the procedural step from McCarthy, who publicly denied any deal had been hatched.

Clark’s whip team pulled together a few dozen Democrats willing to join Republicans, and they gathered in the well of the House. The Democrats collected green cards (to vote yes) and red cards (no), awaiting the call from leadership how to vote.

Democrats only needed to give McCarthy 30 votes, but instead, once Jeffries waved a green card toward them, more than 50 rushed forward to vote yes, to advance the bill to its overwhelming passage later that night.

One of those holding a green card, voting with Republicans and for Biden, was Jackson Lee.