Hakeem Jeffries ‘stops talking’ when asked what he thinks of Kevin McCarthy | US midterm elections 2022

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In his first major interview since being elected the first Black leader in Congress, the New York Democrat Hakeem Jeffries was asked what he thought of Kevin McCarthy, the Californian now seeking the votes to be speaker when Republicans take over the House next year.

“We serve in Congress together,” Jeffries said.

Then, CNN reported, the new Democratic leader “stopped talking”.

Given the rancorous nature of US politics, particularly in the House of Representatives, Jeffries’ reluctance to speak warmly of his opponent, or even to comment at all, was not particularly surprising.

Pressed, he said: “I respect the fact that [McCarthy] is the current House Republican leader, and depending on what happens on 3 January, may be the next Republican speaker.”

McCarthy’s party took the House in last month’s midterm elections but not with the “red wave” many expected, the result a narrow majority and a would-be speaker at the mercy of the restive, pro-Trump far-right.

Jeffries said: “It’s incredible to me that even at this point in time, as [Republicans are] on their way temporarily into the majority, they have not articulated a vision for addressing the economic concerns of the American people. It’s because there’s a real risk that the incoming Republican majority is being hijacked by the extremists who have grown in ranks.”

On Sunday, CNN asked Mike Lawler, a congressman-elect from New York, a state where Republicans performed relatively well, if he would back McCarthy.

Lawler said: “We’re not going to be held hostage by a handful of members when the overwhelming majority of the conference is in full support of Kevin McCarthy.”

Speakers need only 218 votes, a simple majority, regardless of party lines. The longest such contest, concluding in February 1856, went through 133 ballots before producing a winner. Lawler said he would vote for McCarthy through numerous rounds if necessary.

“I will only be voting for Kevin McCarthy for speaker,” Lawler said. “I know many of my colleagues within the conference feel the same way.

“So, you know, this is potentially obviously something that could come to a head, but I do think cooler heads will prevail and I do think on 3 January, Kevin will have the necessary votes to become speaker.”

Also on Sunday, Jeffries told ABC’s This Week his mission would be “to find ways to work with Republicans whenever possible to get things done for the American people … and I hope that Republicans will look for common ground with us, but we will also oppose them when we must, particularly as it relates to any effort to go down this rabbit hole of unnecessary, unconscionable, unacceptable investigations of the administration.”

House Republicans have indicated targets for investigation will include Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, immigration policy and the House select committee investigating Trump’s election subversion and the January 6 Capitol riot.

Jeffries said he had “not had any conversations with Republicans yet. We are in the process of organising as Democrats. They are in the process, of course, of organising as Republicans. But I look forward to those conversations, certainly.”

He was also asked about suggestions that a moderate Republican challenger to McCarthy might attract enough Democratic votes to become speaker.

Jeffries hedged, saying, “I think the question right now is, what are the Republicans going to do?” Pressed on the matter, asked if the door was “still open” to such a scheme, he said: “Well, let’s see.”

In midterm contests in the Senate, Democrats held control even before the Georgia runoff on Tuesday which will decide if they continue to rely on the vote of the vice-president, Kamala Harris, or by a 51-49 majority.

Jeffries was asked about comments by Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, who this week called Jeffries “a past election denier” over remarks about the 2016 presidential election, the legitimacy of which he questioned because of Russian interference, and Donald Trump.

Jeffries said: “If McConnell wants to lean into the fact that I’ve been critical of Trump’s presidency – the overwhelming majority of the world is critical of Trump’s presidency. That didn’t seem to make a lot of sense to me. But he’ll do what he does, and I want to stay focused on fighting for the people.”

Asked why he wanted to become leader, Jeffries said he “look[ed] forward to the opportunity to do the most good for the greatest number of people possible for as long as I have the opportunity to do so.

“I’m just taking the approach of what has to be done today, what has to be done tomorrow, what has to be done this week, what has to be done this month? And then what has to be done to be successful over the next few years?”


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