Clip: House Dems elect younger leadership as McCarthy struggles for votes to become speaker

Dec. 02, 2022 AT 1:14 a.m. EST

House Democrats celebrated this week as they elected a new and younger leadership team. Meanwhile, Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is expected to be the next Speaker of the House, but he has yet to secure the votes needed to be elected to the position as some hardliners in the Freedom Caucus continue to withhold their support.

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Yamiche Alcindor: For the first time in a generation, there is a new historic group leading the Democratic Party in the House. On Wednesday, Democrats voted to elect Hakeem Jeffries of New York as the House minority leader of the next Congress. Jeffries is the first black leader of a party in Congress in history. Representative Katherine Clark of Massachusetts was elected minority whip and Representative Pete Aguilar of California is now caucus chair. All three ran unopposed.

Here's Congressman Jeffries after his election.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY): House Democrats fight for the people. That's our story, that's our legacy, that's our values, that's our commitment as we move forward.

Yamiche Alcindor: And this week, there are other big, big developments for Democrats. Today, in a dramatic change, a Democratic National Committee panel voted to replace Iowa with South Carolina as the first state to vote in the Democratic presidential primary. There still needs to be a final vote of approval by full the DNC. That's expected to happen early next year.

Meanwhile, it was a rocky, rocky week for current Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He is expected to be the next speaker of the House but has yet to secure the 218 votes needed to be elected to the position, as some hardliners in the Freedom Caucus, of course, the sort of right-wing part of his party, continue to withhold their support.

McCarthy and the GOP have also been dealing with the fallout from former President Donald Trump's dinner with Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known Kanye West. Now, both men have expressed racist and anti-Semitic views. Here's McCarthy on Tuesday.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA): I don't think anybody should be spending any time with Nick Fuentes. He has no place in this Republican Party.

Yamiche Alcindor: joining us to discuss this and more, Nia-Malika Henderson, Senior Political Analyst at CNN, and joining me here around the table, Michael C. Bender, Political Correspondent for The New York Times, this is his first time on Washington Week, so thank you and welcome, Weijia Jiang, Senior White House Correspondent for CBS News, you've seen her here before, and Asma Khalid, White House Correspondent at NPR and co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast.

So, Nia, I'm going to start with you. What is the significance of this new leadership team in the House Democratic Party and the fact that Jim Clyburn is staying on?

Nia-Malika Henderson, Senior Political Analyst, CNN: Jim Clyburn is staying on but other than that, I mean, this is a sea change, 30 years difference between the old guard and this new guard. And you saw that they have pretty much sailed to power unopposed. There were some, I think, concerns early on about whether or not progressives would be on board with this, whether they would try to mount some challenges. But so far, the progressives I have talked to seem pleased with this new team, some history-makers in Hakeem Jeffries and Pete Aguilar, and they're all been sort of brought up through the ranks over the years by Nancy Pelosi. This is sort of a handpicked group by her.

In terms of Jim Clyburn, he will be in the number four position. This kind of consternation among some of the younger members of Congress who are very ambitious and saw this generational shift real opportunities. So, with Jim Clyburn remaining on in the number four position, they kind of had to do some reshuffling for another member, Joe Neguse out of Colorado, who would be in a new position where he is kind of in charge of messaging.

But, listen, overall, this was a really smooth transition, and you've got this younger, fresher face to the party and I think a real kind of attempt to re-orientate the Democratic Party to more working-class voters. That was a little bit harder to do with Nancy Pelosi, who is worth tons of money and is a San Francisco liberal. So, in Hakeem Jeffries, you've got someone from Brooklyn who can, quote, Biggie Smalls pretty credibly. So, this is a real different kind of vibe, I think, you'll get from the Democratic Party going forward.

Yamiche Alcindor: Certainly a different vibe and a markedly smooth transition.

Weijia, the president, how does he see this leadership change given the fact that there is this interest in a new guard, but also that he is possibly wanting to run for president? Of course, he's saying he is going to withhold his final decision but saying that he intends to run.

Weijia Jiang, Senior White House Correspondent, CBS: Well, I think Joe Biden, having been in Congress and the Senate for decades, understands because he has seen not only Congress change, but, of course, the country. And he has mentioned from his first day in office and well before that that, you know, the government needs to reflect the people, which is why he has so many initiatives, so many policies that he says are based on equity, are based on diversity. And so I think the president welcomes this very much. He and Jeffries, of course, are friends. They've worked together before. And I think he understands that this is critical in order for the party to evolve into the next chapter.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Asma, if you think about the close working relationship that Jeffries has with Biden, there's also on the other side a very tense relationship that Hakeem Jeffries has with Republicans. Nia talked about him quoting Biggie Smalls. He has done that in a lot of times and attacks against Republicans. What is your sense of his working relationship with McCarthy or possibly other Republicans? He was known for having a close relationship with conservative, Doug Collins, what I wonder what you're hearing.

Asma Khalid, White House Correspondent, NPR: Yes. I mean, I think that -- you mentioned McCarthy. I mean, I think there's even questions about whether or not he's entirely going to be speaker, which we'll talk about in a moment.

Yamiche Alcindor: Certainly.

Asma Khalid: But, I mean, I think the biggest question I have had about this new Congress is essentially what they will be able to achieve. I have been talking to a bunch of people, sources at the White House, and there's a sense that a lot of what is going to happen over the next couple of years is very limited legislation, Republicans. So, I will say that a lot of what Hakeem Jeffries is going to be able to do in the next two years is I think somewhat symbolic in terms of establishing Democratic priorities and creating a really clear contrast, a really clear foil for the Democrats to take into 2024. They two haven't had that foil in the last years.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Michael, Asma was just talking about how Kevin McCarthy might not be speaker. I wonder what you're hearing about the potential for this to get even more complicated for him, maybe even for someone to come up and say, you know what, I have the votes to be speaker.

Michael Bender: Yes, definitely. First of all, thanks for having me on here.

Yamiche Alcindor: Yes, we're so excited.

Michael Bender, Political Correspondent, The New York Times: And I'm really excited to be here with such a talented group here tonight for the first time on the show.

You know, Kevin McCarthy has some problems on his hand. Even if he becomes speaker and is able to pull this off, which he is probably still the odds on favorite, although he's got to secure those votes in order to -- he's still got that task ahead of him. He's is going to have this kind of -- I mean, this is going to be indicative of whoever is speaker on the Republican side, the issues they are going to have trying to manage this unruly caucus with a lot of different viewpoints inside and with such a narrow margin in the House.

You know, it is striking to me here that even the Clyburn story became a story. It was such a brief challenge, right? But it kind of shows on the Democratic side how well they have done this year at avoiding big, public fights within their party. There are as many disagreements with inside the Democratic Party as there are -- ideologically as there are the Republicans. They have been able to manage those, not just in Congress but during the midterms as well. And plenty of Republicans have brought this up to me as a reason that Democrats did such a good job at sort of stemming the losses in the House and holding onto the Senate. They avoided these big primaries, obviously, heading into the midterms.

On the other hand, McCarthy, you know, I mean, Clyburn to a degree, he's one of the most important Democrats in the party for the last decade, no question.

Yamiche Alcindor: He reminds about it.

Michael Bender: Yes, definitely. The Senate side, McConnell holding on, right? You look back at the last couple of years, all of the retirements we have seen in Congress the last couple of cycles, and every time there's a big retirement in Congress, the reason is always how hard it is to get things done, how bad things have become inside the Congress. They are talking about their leaders in the way if we heard voters saying these kinds of things out on the campaign trail, we would expect a wave election, right?

And instead, these members keep electing the same leaders time and time again. Mitch McConnell has, what, 10 percent approval rating nationally and he's in charge of the Senate once again. McCarthy is going to -- again, the odds on favorite here. You wonder how much both parties would benefit. Do we see the changes on the Democratic side from some changes in leadership inside Congress?

Yamiche Alcindor: When talking about changes, a big change is coming it seems to the Democratic National Committee, and that calendar, where they are putting your home state, South Carolina, maybe you are feeling good about it because you are a native. I wonder what you make of this change, what is driving it.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Listen, South Carolina is rarely first in anything. So, this idea that it might be first -- listen, I was texting with a Democrat down in South Carolina, and I said, listen, South Carolina could be first, and they said job security for Joe Biden, right? Because if he is going to run, it certainly looks like he will, it will be great for his candidacy to stave off any potential, maybe progressive challenger that South Carolina, the state that really delivered him to the nomination, delivered him ultimately to the White House and secure him that nomination first, that that would be the first state, that would show his strength.

And, listen, even beyond 2024, I think it's a message to other Democratic presidential hopefuls that you really need to do well with black voters should you want to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party. So, this is good news for Joe Biden. It is good news for somebody like Kamala Harris, should she want to run for president. It's good news for somebody like Raphael Warnock, who, if he prevails on Tuesday, I think is going to sort of rocket to everybody's list as somebody who might run for president one day.

So, this is a real kind of sea-change but something that has happened over a discussion of 20 or 30 years, going back to Jesse Jackson, about the strength of African-American voters, the primacy that they should have in the Democratic Party. We should also note that last go around, Iowa was terrible, right? We did not know the results of the Iowa caucus for days and days and days because they just messed it up, and so now you've got South Carolina, my home state, possibly becoming the first nominating contest.

There are sort of hurdles to jump over going forward at the state level for all of these states that are going to be moved up, but, so far, I mean, it is looking like Democrats really like this. And, listen, a lot of South Carolina Democrats did not know this was going to happen. Joe Biden had to call Jim Clyburn and tell him that this was happening. I think the DNC chair, Jaime Harrison, was at a party fundraiser, so they had to tell him there. So, this was something obviously Clyburn wanted, a lot of South Carolina Democrats wanted as well, but, listen, they were surprised as anyone.

Yamiche Alcindor: Yes. Asma, what are you hearing about sort of the primary calendar changes, the political ramifications of this, especially even for the general elections, when now you also have New Hampshire and also Nevada going to be up there too?

Asma Khalid: That's what I was going to say. I mean, you mentioned the impetus. The major impetus for these changes was actually this letter from President Biden essentially outlining how he wanted this calendar changed with South Carolina at the top, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada, and in Michigan and Georgia.

Look, there has long been criticism that Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states that went first, were not really demographically representative of the Democratic Party. I think, the impetus immediately, though, as we just heard, was the fact that the Iowa caucuses themselves were a mess last time around.

I think one of the challenges moving forward though is going to be -- I think that South Carolina is a smaller media market state, but some of these other places, you talk about a Michigan or a Georgia, those are states that have pretty decently expensive media markets with the Detroit and Atlanta. And there are questions of could a candidate like Barack Obama have come to the top if he really wasn't able to do those county fairs and meeting individual voters they way you can in Iowa?

Yamiche Alcindor: And it's a credible question, Weijia, and it's also, in some ways, related to this idea that President Biden is trying to do all he can to sort of generate goodwill and have a good political future ahead of him. The rail strike, though, this bill that he has signed now into law, basically saying, here is going to be the deal among these workers, it does not have sick leave, any increase in sick leave in it, what are you hearing from the White House about that?

Weijia Jiang: This was a really difficult position for President Biden, he said as much himself, because this is kind of a triple whammy. He himself has branded himself as the most pro-labor president in history, as the rail guy, as someone who supports paid leave for all Americans, and this sort of shows a failure of all three. I mean, you have union workers now, union leaders now saying that he turned his back on them, because, essentially, they say that he took away their right to collective bargaining, right, because this bill now forces the agreement into action. And so, they aren't able to strike, they lost that.

But, of course, for the White House, you know, they were relying on the numbers to try to explain why, if there was a rail strike, it could cost $2 billion a day, it could cost 800,000 jobs within two weeks. So, I think they felt like they didn't have a choice, but certainly there is going to be repercussions. I mean, think about how much support the unions gave him and brought him to the White House, and now, you know, that political goodwill, as you mentioned, has disappeared.

Yamiche Alcindor: Yes. And, Michael, I have to take almost -- it is almost a hard turn to make but one that we have to make in a week like this, which is how we have to talk about hate speech and the former presidents dinner with Nick Fuentes and the Rapper formerly known as Kanye West. You obviously have covered former President Trump very closely. I wonder what you are hearing about his standing in the GOP and whether or not this is a political strategy, a winning strategy, in his mind, to appeal to the fringes of society.

Michael Bender: Well, I don't know that this is so much of a strategy and kind of what he has left here, right? I mean, this is -- to be fair to President Trump, he did not invite a lot of these folks to Mar-a-Lago. That's not to excuse this either though. Some of the Nick Fuentes -- it has kind of been lost here that Trump did bring in Kanye West, who has had a track record here of some racist, anti-Semitic comments.

And what I am hearing from a lot of Republicans is that that should have been enough, right? The fact that whether or not he knew who Nick Fuentes was, an avowed white nationalist, to bring him in is really beside the point, right, that the leader of the Republican Party, the most recent president, the leading contender for the nomination in 2024 right now should have known better than to bring in Kanye West, full stop ,period, right there.

And I'm hearing from Republicans that they've kind of had enough, that this is kind of par for the course. There's not a lot of surprise that Trump kind of walked right into this, that he should have a little bit more vetting process around him. They say he's going to. But also, I mean, Kanye went there, Kanye West went there and asked Trump to be his running mate. That's also another point that Kanye --

Yamiche Alcindor: It's really interesting that you bring that up, and, Nia, I want to bring you in here, because you have obviously covered race and civil rights in this country. What do you make of the way that this has played out? I mean, we don't have enough minutes to get into Kanye West, but just tell me what you are hearing from your sources.

Nia-Malika Henderson: Well listen, this is not a surprise. I mean, we know who Donald Trump is. We know the kind of footsy that he has played with white supremacists. This is a flashback to what happened in 2016 around David Duke, him pretending not to know who David Duke was.

And his campaign in 2016 was sort of white grievance meets economic populism and now it seems to just be white grievances. There's no sort of economic populism. There isn't a kind of build the wall slogan. It's just sort of down to his own sort of personal delusions and misgivings about what happened in 2020 and conspiracy theories.

And, listen, this is why he allegedly lost in 2020, this is why they lost in 2018 and this is why Republicans also who tied themselves so closely to Trump's identity, whether it was around election denialism or the kind of low-grade white supremacist rhetoric, that's why they lost. I mean, the extremes of the party lost up and down ballot, these Trump handpicked candidates. And so this is a real problem, I think, for the Republican Party.

Among the leadership, they have sort of essentially, for years, just kind of ignored it. It has festered among actual voters. And it is not clear that Republican voters are sick of Donald Trump's rhetoric, primary voters, the kind of voters who would actually matter in him winning the nomination in 2024.

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