Inside House Democrats’ fight over debt ceiling messaging
In a closed-door Democratic whip meeting on Thursday, Rep. Jahana Hayes challenged her party’s leadership team on the caucus’ debt ceiling messaging strategy.
“Why aren’t we staying this weekend?” the Connecticut Democrat asked, suggesting that the party should remain in Washington despite Republicans adjourning the House for Memorial Day recess just days ahead of a possible default on the federal debt. “We should stay here and ask Republicans how they can go home.”
“She’s right,” added Rep. Debbie Dingell. The Michigan Democrat was supposed to officiate her goddaughter’s wedding in Italy this weekend, but decided to cancel her trip and instead stay behind in D.C., according to a source familiar with her plans.
In the meeting, House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries didn’t reject the idea outright, but senior Democrats tell POLITICO that leadership is not in favor of forcing members to skip constituent meetings back home when there are no concrete plans to vote.
The push by some Democrats to remain in Washington comes despite Jeffries’ own efforts to tamp down frustration among Democratic lawmakers over what they see as a messaging void from the White House.
In recent days, members have privately fumed that Biden has refused to use his bully pulpit to deliver a clear and concise message on the debt ceiling talks — even as Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and his negotiators Garret Graves (R-La.) and Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) have used frequent reporter gaggles and off-the-cuff press conferences to make their case and skewer the White House position.
Many Hill Democrats see Biden’s non-engagement as a strategic blunder. “They don’t want to poison the well on negotiations, but Republicans are doing just that and it’s an asymmetrical game,” one member of Jeffries’ leadership team told POLITICO, summarizing the White House’s thinking. “It’s not sustainable.”
We’re told that in the party’s weekly leadership meeting earlier this week, Jeffries suggested that since the White House felt it could not go on offense against McCarthy, House Democrats would. Jeffries and his leadership team shortly thereafter called a news conference on the Capitol steps. And since then, the minority leader has made a point of taking reporters’ questions more frequently as he seeks to counter the GOP’s flood-the-zone tactics.
Meanwhile, the White House is largely happy to hang back and play “good cop” to Hill Democrats’ “bad cop” — a strategy they feel has worked for them in the past. One Biden ally who is in touch with the White House says there have been conversations between Jeffries and the administration over what the messaging should be and who should be saying it.
“They have coordinated with him around what they’re both saying,” the Biden ally told Playbook last night. “They are on the same page about him doing that and them [staying mum]. The president knows when to be clear with the contrast, and he knows when to hold back to get a deal.”
Today, as recess looms, the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee is expected to disseminate talking points urging Democrats to blast Republicans when they’re back home in their districts.
Still, some House Democrats say the hit-them-at-home messaging efforts are not enough. Several have pressed leadership to object to Republicans’ request to adjourn today. They hope to instead force a vote, putting the squeeze on the GOP for leaving town just days out from the X-date — mirroring Republicans’ attacks on Biden for going to Japan last week for the G-7.
Democratic leaders appear to be encouraging their rank-and-file to slam Republicans for adjourning. According to a whip note sent around on Thursday night and shared with POLITICO, senior Democrats are urging members today to take to the House floor en masse to “demand Speaker McCarthy keep the House in session and share constituent stories that highlight the local impact of the devastating cuts proposed by Republicans to critical programs that keep Americans housed, fed, healthy, and secure as they hold America’s economy hostage.”
Of course, if McCarthy doesn’t do that, many Democrats will be heading to the airport right next to their GOP counterparts.