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‘Who is he?’ The X-factor relationship that could soon rule the House

Kevin McCarthy and Hakeem Jeffries have almost nothing in common — except a shared ambition to run the House. Not that they will admit they think about each other at all.

“Kevin who?” Jeffries quips of the minority leader. “Who is he?” McCarthy asks, rhetorically, of the No. 5 House Democrat.

While the election that will decide their fates is nearly a year away, the cold war between the ambitious pols is in full swing. Jeffries, considered a future leader of the caucus after its octogenarian leaders step aside, rips McCarthy frequently for not doing enough to police his fringe Republicans. McCarthy has suggested that a GOP-controlled House could reprimand Jeffries for his more political tweets.

Neither McCarthy nor Jeffries are guaranteed the top spots in the House next Congress. But they are both clear frontrunners.

And with Republicans favored to take back control in 2023, plus plenty of speculation about Nancy Pelosi’s future as leader, it’s increasingly possible that the House undergoes the tectonic transformation of a McCarthy-Jeffries era in little more than a year. The effects would be both generational and institutional for a chamber long guided by older norms and, in Democrats’ case, by the same top leaders.

“They’re both smart. I think they are both advocates for their side,” said Republican Rep. Kelly Armstrong (N.D.), who served with Jeffries on the Judiciary Committee. “They recognize — hopefully — that there’s half the country that disagrees with them and that people want this place to start working. I think they’re both capable of it.”

The scenario would play out with McCarthy ascending to the speakership, if Republicans take power in the midterms, and Jeffries becoming speaker or minority leader, depending on who controls the House. A power shift for House Democrats after two decades under Pelosi, who has not said lately whether she will abide by the leadership term limits she placed on herself in 2018, would come at a critical crossroads for the chamber. The traditions and rules anchoring it, even in periods of charged partisanship, have nearly evaporated since the Jan. 6 insurrection.

And the relationship between the two current House leaders couldn’t be worse. McCarthy generally talks not to Pelosi but to the No. 2 Democrat, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who himself hasn’t ruled out running for the top job if the speaker steps down.

But the question that looms large on Capitol Hill is whether even brand-new leadership dynamics can fix an institution that now focuses much of its energy on laboring to pass even simple bills that enjoy broad support — when it’s not responding to personal beefs between members. The gulf of distrust that divided the two parties after Jan. 6 now infects every aspect of the House, from personal to professional, institutional minutiae to monumental legislation.

Both McCarthy and Jeffries declined to be interviewed for this article.

“Leader McCarthy is currently unavailable and quite frankly, uninterested, in speaking about the career ambitions of a Democrat in the caucus,” said Mark Bednar, spokesperson for McCarthy.

“Unless they are prepared to abandon Trump, his toxic brand of politics, and Trumpism,” Jeffries said broadly of the House GOP, “there will still be challenges in governing this institution in a collegiate way with Republicans who continue to bend the knee to the former president.”


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