Jeffries seeks to stem House defections, for now, as Democrats panic over Biden

As of early Wednesday morning, President Biden had called just one congressional leader personally in the wake of his faltering debate performance: Hakeem Jeffries.

That the president chose Jeffries is perhaps not surprising. The New York Democrat may be the only thing standing between Biden and a flood of panicked House Democrats — few of whom have so far gone on the record — demanding the president exit the race, hopefully saving their chances of regaining the slender House majority in the process.

On Wednesday evening, Jeffries led a tightly controlled conference call of House Democratic leaders as concern over Biden ricocheted on and off Capitol Hill. According to four people who either participated on the call or were briefed on it, the leader mainly listened, as some panicked participants worried about Biden’s electability and said the president should step aside. Some argued, however, according to one person on the call, that it would be too “messy” to replace him. Jeffries acknowledged being concerned about Biden’s situation but held his fire, according to one person familiar with the call.

So far, the would-be House speaker has succeeded in stemming a tide of defectors calling for Biden’s exit after a debate last week in which the president noticeably stumbled at times, spoke in a thin voice, mumbled words and occasionally looked confused. It was a performance that drew immediate worries among Democrats concerned about his age and perceived fragility among voters.

“There was a real effort of the leadership team to keep unity, if not unanimity,” said a lawmaker on the Wednesday evening call attended by members of House Democratic elected leadership.

Jeffries asked his leadership team to keep talking with each other, their colleagues and their constituents and to stay in touch.

Amid the mounting storm, Jeffries has remained careful and steady.

“As he has for every big decision, once again, Leader Jeffries is in ‘listening mode,’ taking the time to hear members about the impact in their districts and carefully assessing the path forward,” said Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.), the head of the moderate New Democrat Coalition. “Patience is a virtue. Democratic unity is top of mind for our leadership.”

Jeffries has not asked lawmakers to defend the president, according to multiple members who have spoken directly with him. But he has asked them to give Biden the grace to make his own decision about whether to remain in the presidential race. Jeffries has reminded Democrats not to act irrationally, and to allow this week to play out before making any statements. He prefers hashing things out as a group when Democrats return to Washington next week.

The story of how Jeffries is handling perhaps the biggest political crisis of his House leadership — he’s only been in the job a little over a year and a half — is based on interviews with roughly a dozen House Democratic lawmakers and over a dozen aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk extensively about ongoing private conversations within the caucus regarding their party’s president.

The rapidly moving news has once again thrust Jeffries into the middle of a defining moment. But unlike helping Republicans fund the government, averting a debt crisis or sending critical aid to foreign allies, Jeffries is navigating uncharted and very choppy waters four months out from Election Day.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Biden’s aides are insisting he won’t step aside. Biden press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters that the president was “absolutely not” dropping out of the race.

And it seems like Jeffries, at least for now, would prefer that his members not ask Biden to.

Only two House Democrats — Reps. Lloyd Doggett (Tex.) and Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.) — had publicly called for Biden’s exit, though several others have tread a middle ground in saying Biden can’t beat Trump in November.

It’s a delicate position for Jeffries, who is expected to be speaker if Democrats retake the House majority — caught between a Democratic president and his own fretting, angry members.

“Hakeem is a big part of the Democratic unity we’ve shown for the past two years. So when he’s ready to provide guidance on this question, I am certain that many members will be glad to receive it and will probably find it very persuasive,” said Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), who was not on Wednesday night’s call.

Over the past few days, House Democrats said they felt “gaslit” by the White House and Biden campaign’s weak reassurances that everything remains fine, and some fear the relationship between House Democrats and the president is “irreparable.”

Worried House Democrats are circulating draft letters that call on Biden to step aside. Democrats are informally brainstorming how to run their races without Biden at the top of the ticket in a flurry of group texts. Above all, most remain focused on their No. 1 goal: a House Democratic majority, which requires reminding voters on the campaign trail what a Democratic House was able to accomplish under a Democratic administration.

When donors ask Jeffries what to do, he directs them to channel their concerns into House races. He has tried to reassure all Democrats who have reached out to him in calls or texts that the House can serve as a backstop to a potential Republican Senate and White House, though people familiar with his thinking stress he does not mean to infer that Biden will lose the election.

Jeffries and other leaders are aware that a wave of private frustrations could soon spill into public view. Two centrist Democrats — Reps. Jared Golden (D-Maine) and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-Wash.) — have predicted Biden will lose to Trump. After officials insisted Biden would stay in the race, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), a liberal, expressed late Wednesday his “grave concerns” about Biden’s “ability to defeat Donald Trump.”

“Winning will require prosecuting the case in the media, in town halls, and at campaign stops all over the country. President Biden needs to demonstrate that he can do that,” Moulton said. “When your current strategy isn’t working, it’s rarely the right decision to double down. President Biden is not going to get younger.”

Jeffries has managed to contain the defections thus far, often reminding colleagues in numerous communications that they cannot undo something once it’s been said publicly.

In typical Jeffries style, he has spent the week gathering input from across the caucus so he could accurately reflect the mood in calls with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and other officials.

Despite the chaos, Jeffries has largely been able to keep members united and optimistic about their chances of winning back the House majority. Democrats need to clinch four seats to do so, and members acknowledge that Jeffries is eager to become speaker.

Jeffries’s listening style and frequent communication with members is what many believe has led colleagues to be deferential to his guidance. In a Tuesday evening call with the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection — known as the “frontliners” — Jeffries heard from frustrated members who raised their concerns over Biden and his ability to stay in the race.

One member who spoke with Jeffries on Wednesday noted that while many Democrats are circulating letters or discussing going public, they did not want to get ahead of their leader’s public statements and feel confident he “shares the concerns we all have.”

Beyond expressing caution, members say that Jeffries has not been explicit in either defending or championing Biden.

“I didn’t get any indication that he was someone who was trying to silence anyone,” Golden said, who was one of the first Democrats to hear from Jeffries behind closed doors after the debate Friday and has not heard from anyone in leadership since declaring Biden would lose to Trump in an op-ed.

Jeffries hasn’t disagreed with members that Vice President Harris would be the best option to lead the ticket if Biden chooses to step aside, said two people familiar with this thinking who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations. But he is not openly contemplating that scenario.

In the days after the debate, Jeffries in public remarks acknowledged the reality of Biden’s disappointing debate performance. But he did not break with the president.

At a New York fundraiser that raised $3 million for House Democrats, Jeffries asked former president Barack Obama how voters should view Biden’s performance — which he called a “setback” making way for an opportunity for a “comeback.” Obama replied that politics was a “team sport” and that winning back the House majority should be “sufficient motivation” for donors to support the Democratic ticket.

During a speech in Hartford, Conn., over the weekend before roughly 1,000 attendees, Jeffries reiterated his position, adding that Trump was an existential threat to democracy. He praised Biden for being “a good man, a family man, an honorable man” who is up against “a con man.”

“The Democratic Party stands on the side of freedom,” Jeffries said in a keynote speech. “The Democratic Party will always stand on the side of truth, which is why it’s an all-hands-on-deck moment to win in November. Because the stakes are too high for us to do anything, other than pour our heart and our soul into victory on Nov. 5, all across the board.

Democratic strategists working to flip the House have advised candidates to continue talking about the issues and counseled them to navigate the Biden situation however they think is necessary in their district.

Rep. Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) praised Jeffries’s leadership style in an interview, calling him a “listener” who governs “with a sense of keeping us all united — and to do it very calmly.” She added that he was among the best messengers in the Democratic caucus.

But another Democratic lawmaker groused that there was a lack of effort to gather House Democrats as panic-stricken members privately express grave concerns about Biden’s ability to stay the course.

“We haven’t had a single caucus meeting or call since the debate,” the lawmaker said.

It’s for that reason many Democrats know next week’s caucus meeting Tuesday morning will be a momentous test of Jeffries’s ability to wrangle emotional lawmakers privately airing their opinions together for the first time.

Some House Democrats are upset with the Biden campaign’s argument that they should back the president because the election’s stakes are so high, considering that argument condescending. Many lived through the Trump administration and understand the stakes after surviving the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection in the Capitol while Biden and his top officials were not in office. The Supreme Court’s decision to grant immunity to a president’s official acts has further reinforced fear of Trump winning the election.

One Democratic frontliner who spoke with the Biden campaign over the weekend said they were shocked to hear officials still defending Biden’s performance as a “bad night” and insisting the president is “ready to serve.” This frontliner complained that campaign aides failed to provide a clear road map demonstrating how the president would show Americans he is capable of the job. Another frontliner said that campaign officials reached out on Friday, largely to ensure they wouldn’t speak out against the president, which they did not find reassuring.

What uniformly had irked Democrats was Biden’s lack of communication with Jeffries. That all changed Wednesday evening — but a handful of Democrats considered it too little too late.

“It’s untenable for him to be the nominee if half of his own party in Congress is saying he should go,” a senior congressional aide said.

Josh Dawsey and Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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