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Pro-Israel Democrat Jeffries elected first-ever Black House minority leader

NYC lawmaker who rejects BDS, conditioning aid to Israel, likely to toe line set by his predecessor Pelosi and others in party leadership who oppose harsher stance on Jewish state

House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., arrives for leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., arrives for leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

House Democrats on Wednesday elected Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, a pro-Israel lawmaker from New York, minority leader, the the first-ever Black person to take that role.

Jeffries, 52, represents a new generation climbing the ranks of the Democratic party, and will replace long-serving Speaker Nancy Pelosi beginning in 2023.

While some in that younger generation have pushed for a tougher US stance on Israel, Jeffries does not belong to that camp and is likely to toe the line set by his predecessor Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and US President Joe Biden, who have long made a point of boasting their pro-Israel bona fides.

Jeffries has been one the most pro-Israel Democrats in the House, speaking out against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and against conditioning US aid to Israel.

He has been endorsed by both AIPAC and the Democratic Majority for Israel. The latter group hailed Jeffries’ election, saying he “has always been a strong and effective fighter for the Democratic agenda and a staunch supporter of the critical relationship between the United States and Israel.”

“As the next House Democratic Leader, and the first Black person to lead either party in either chamber of Congress, he’ll continue to be a consensus builder and lead Democrats in addressing the most pressing issues facing our country,” the center-left DMFI group said in a statement. “A frequent traveler to Israel, Leader Jeffries has often remarked that Israel ‘lives in a tough neighborhood.’ He has worked tirelessly to make sure that, in this tough neighborhood, Israel has the tools to defend itself, by itself.”

An AIPAC spokesman said that the group congratulated Jeffries on his election.

“Representative Jeffries is a stalwart supporter of the US-Israel relationship and we look forward to working with him to further strengthen the alliance between the two democracies,” he said.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: AIPAC Proud

Thank you Congressman Hakeem Jeffries for your leadership and for supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship. #AIPACProud #AIPAC2020

Posted by AIPAC on Monday, March 2, 2020

While Jeffries has in the past identified as a progressive, he has also butted heads with members of the progressive “squad,” such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He also endorsed centrist, pro-Israel lawmakers Elliot Engel and Shontel Brown against progressive challengers Jamaal Bowman and Nina Turner. The former was successful in his 2020 bid to unseat Engel while the latter lost to Brown earlier this year.

While Jeffries was supportive of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal negotiated by then-president Barak Obama, he opposed the latter’s decision to refrain from vetoing on a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements.

Showing rare party unity after losing their House majority in this month’s midterm elections, the Democratic representatives moved seamlessly from one history-making leader to another in a closed-door vote that was unanimous by acclamation.

“It’s a solemn responsibility that we are all inheriting,” Jeffries told reporters on the eve of the party meeting. “And the best thing that we can do as a result of the seriousness and solemnity of the moment is lean in hard and do the best damn job that we can for the people.”

It’s rare for a party that lost the midterm elections to so easily regroup; it stands in stark contrast with the upheaval among Republicans, who are struggling to unite around GOP leader Kevin McCarthy as the new House speaker as they prepare to take control when the new Congress convenes in January.

Wednesday’s internal Democratic caucus votes of Jeffries and the other top leaders came without challengers. Cheers broke out after the elections.

The trio led by Jeffries, who will become the Democratic minority leader in the new Congress, includes 59-year-old Rep. Katherine Clark of Massachusetts as the Democratic whip and 43-year-old Rep. Pete Aguilar of California as caucus chairman. The new team of Democratic leaders is expected to slide into the slots held by Pelosi and her top lieutenants — Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina — as the 80-something leaders make way for the next generation.

US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi attends a joint meeting with Speaker of the Knesset Mickey Levy at the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem, Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2022. (Abir Sultan/Pool via AP)

But in many ways, the trio has been transitioning in plain sight, as one aide put it — Jeffries, Clark and Aguilar working with Pelosi’s nod these past several years in lower-rung leadership roles as the first woman to have the speaker’s gavel prepared to step down. Pelosi, of California, has led the House Democrats for the past 20 years, and colleagues late Tuesday granted her the honorific title of “speaker emerita.”

“It an important moment for the caucus — that there’s a new generation of leadership,” said Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., ahead of voting.

Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri called the leadership election “historic” and a “time for change.”

While Democrats will be relegated to the House minority in the new year for the 118th Congress, they will have a certain amount of leverage because the Republican majority is expected to be so slim and McCarthy’s hold on his party fragile.

The House’s two new potential leaders, Jeffries and McCarthy, are of the same generation but have almost no real relationship to speak of — in fact the Democrat is known for leveling political barbs at the Republican from afar, particularly over the GOP’s embrace of former president Donald Trump. Jeffries served as a House manager during Trump’s first impeachment.

“We’re still working through the implications of Trumpism,” Jeffries said, “and what it has meant, as a very destabilizing force for American democracy.”

US Senator Chuck Schumer speaks to supporters after he won reelection during the election night party for New York Governor Kathy Hochul, November 8, 2022, in New York. (AP/Mary Altaffer)

Jeffries said he hopes to find “common ground when possible” with Republicans but will “oppose their extremism when we must.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Jeffries will have a partner in Schumer — another New Yorker poised to helm the Democratic leadership in Congress. They live about a mile (1.6 kilometers) apart in Brooklyn.

“There are going to be a group, in my judgment, of mainstream Republicans who are not going to want to go in the MAGA direction, and Hakeem’s the ideal type of guy to work with them,” Schumer said in an interview, referencing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.

Jeffries has sometimes been met with skepticism from party progressives, viewed as a more centrist figure among House Democrats.

But Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., part of the “squad” of progressive lawmakers, said she has been heartened by the way Jeffries and his team are reaching out, even though they faced no challengers.

“There’s a genuine sense that he wants to develop relationships and working partnerships with many of us,” she said.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat-Michigan, listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, on Capitol Hill, in Washington, on February 12, 2020. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Clark, in the No. 2 spot, is seen as a coalition builder on the leadership team, while Aguilar, as the third-ranking leader, is known as a behind-the-scenes conduit to centrists and even Republicans.

Clyburn, now the highest-ranking Black American in Congress, is seeking to become the assistant democratic leader, keeping a seat at the leadership table and helping the new generation to transition.

But Clyburn faces an unexpected challenge from Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., who is openly gay and argued Wednesday in a letter to colleagues that House Democrats should “fully respect the diversity of our caucus and the American people by including an LGBTQ+ member at the leadership table.”

The election for the assistant leader post and several others is expected to be held Thursday.

Jeffries’ ascent comes as a milestone for Black Americans, the Capitol built with the labor of enslaved people and its dome later expanded during Abraham Lincoln’s presidency as a symbol the nation would stand during the Civil War.

His Brooklyn-area district was once represented by Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, who was born on the same day as his election, Nov. 30, in 1924.

“The thing about Pete, Katherine and myself is that we embrace what the House represents,” Jeffries said, calling it “the institution closest to the people.”

While the House Democrats are often a big, diverse, “noisy family,” he said, “it’s a good thing.” He said, “At the end of the day, we’re always committed to finding the highest common denominator in order to get big things done for everyday Americans.”

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