Democrats Won’t Cut Spending to Raise Debt Ceiling, Says Hakeem Jeffries : NPR


New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, the new leader of the House Democrats, insists the looming national debt crisis will be resolved without his party bowing to demands from Republicans to negotiate spending cuts in exchange of their support to raise the debt ceiling.

“There’s a difference between a compromise and a ransom note. So let me be clear. We’re not going to pay a ransom note to extremists on the other side,” Jeffries said this week in an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep.

When asked if Democrats would stick to their position even if it meant risking a default, Jeffries flatly rejected that scenario, saying, “We’re not going to let the car fall off the cliff even if there are people who are ready to do it.”

Jeffries added that there is “a time and a place to discuss future spending” and he thinks those conversations should take place later in the year, when Congress traditionally decides spending levels through its credit process.

Jeffries sees an endgame in this latest confrontation.

“We’ll find a legislative vehicle,” Jeffries said, that allows Democrats to vote with “a handful of reasonable Republicans” to save the country from economic calamity.

Jeffries made his remarks as part of a wide-ranging interview at the United States Capitol, where he recently moved into the House Minority Leader’s office suite. Speaking about his new job, he said he would work with the majority as much as possible, but would oppose extreme measures, including debt limit threats.

Jeffries, 52, is the successor to Rep. Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats and the first black leader of a party in Congress. After last year’s midterm elections, his party is narrowly in the minority. Republicans have a four-seat majority in the House. But Jeffries thinks his caucus will be able to wield some power whenever Republicans grapple with their own internal divisions.

This month, House Republicans showed their divisions, requiring fifteen ballots before electing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The Democrats were united: their every vote in every ballot went to Jeffries.

He’s a Brooklyn native, the son of public employees turned corporate lawyer, then rose into New York City’s bare-knuckle politics. Elected to Congress in 2012, he proved an effective supporter as one of the leaders of President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, and also effective within his party, rising through the Democratic leadership ranks.

Although he himself has a largely progressive voting record, Jeffries said he would not “bend a knee” to “hard left socialists”.

During our chat, Jeffries offered no criticism of his fellow Democrats, saying, “We’ve all gotten off to a good start as a family, not even a criticism of President McCarthy, whom he’s dismissed in the past as a “betrayal” to Donald Trump.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

Work with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

President McCarthy and I had very positive and forward-looking conversations to try to find common ground. We know we are going to strongly disagree on some points. That means we should lean even harder to try to figure out where the common ground might be in order to get results.

SI: I want to clarify this. A year or two ago you were saying that McCarthy wasn’t a serious person because he had effectively sold out to Donald Trump. But you say you are now in a room with him and having productive conversations.

Kevin McCarthy has been elected Speaker of the United States House of Representatives. I think he has the confidence of the overwhelming majority of his caucus, of his conference, as evidenced by the fact that he ended up getting there as a speaker.

On the debt ceiling

We incurred these bills. We have to pay them. In fact… with the debt that we have, 25% of it was incurred during the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency. And so, number one, we won’t be lectured on financial responsibility. Second, we want to impress upon the American people that the debt ceiling discussion is about paying bills that have already been incurred. And third, we are not going to negotiate with individuals who have a gun to the heads of the American people, the economy, Social Security and Medicare, by threatening to default on our debt.

On whether House Democrats will negotiate with Republicans to raise debt ceiling

There is a difference between a compromise and a ransom demand. And so let me be clear. We are not going to pay a ransom to the extremists of the other party. However, as President Biden has indicated, there is a time and a place to discuss future spending. President Biden will present a budget. House Republicans on the budget committee will have the opportunity to do the same. We can go through the budget process. We can go through the credits process. These are the appropriate vehicles to try to find common ground in terms of how we will spend taxpayers’ money in the future.

How much leverage Democrats have to raise the debt ceiling without major concessions

We will be able, ultimately, to convince a handful of reasonable Republicans in the House to do what the business community across America has suggested we do. What the United States Chamber of Commerce believes needs to be done. What Wall Street says needs to be done. This is to ensure that we pay the US bills that have already been incurred.

On keeping progressive and moderate Democrats together

I think we all got off to a good start as a family, as a caucus. And as I’ve stated many times, I have tremendous respect for every member of the House Democratic Caucus, from Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to Rep. Josh Gottheimer, and all points in between, because the fact that we’re so diverse , so diverse in terms of race or gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification, life experience, ideology and region. This is what makes the House Democratic Caucus the most authentic representatives of the American people, in my opinion, because we closely resemble and reflect the magnificent mosaic of the American people.

On the recent discovery of more classified documents mismanaged by White House officials, including President Biden, former Vice President Pence and others

This case is now in the hands of a special prosecutor with respect to the current president and the most immediate past president of the United States of America. And I think my view is that the special prosecutor will follow the facts, apply the law, be guided by the Constitution, and eventually present this information about what happened to the American people and to the Justice Department. And so I don’t want to preempt the special prosecutor, but I think at some point Congress might have a discussion about the general treatment of classified documents in a way that makes the most sense as we let’s move on.

On the multi-day effort to elect a Speaker of the House for the 118th Congress

I didn’t expect to hear my name, I think about 3,179 times.

This interview with was produced and edited for the air by Julie Depenbrock, Barry Gordemer and Simone Popperl. Padmananda Rama edited it for digital.


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