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Hakeem Jeffries says Democrats won't pay a 'ransom note' to GOP over debt ceiling

New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries,the new leader of House Democrats, insists the looming national debt crisis will be resolved without his party submitting to demands by Republicans who want to negotiate spending cuts in exchange for their support in raising the debt ceiling.

"There is a difference between a compromise and a ransom note. And so let me be clear. We are not going to pay a ransom note to extremists in the other party," Jeffries said this week in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

When asked whether Democrats would stick to their position even if it meant risking a default, Jeffries emphatically rejected that scenario saying, "We're not going to let the car go off the cliff even though there are people who are willing to do it."

Jeffries added that there is "a time and a place to have a discussion about future spending" and he thinks those conversations should happen later in the year when Congress traditionally decides spending levels through its appropriations process.

Jeffries sees an endgame to this latest confrontation.

"We will find a vehicle legislatively," Jeffries said, that allows Democrats to vote with "a handful of reasonable Republicans" to save the country from economic calamity.

Jeffries made his remarks as part of a wide-ranging interview at the U.S. Capitol, where he recently moved into the office suite of the House minority leader. In talking of his new job, he said he would work with the majority whenever possible, but that he would oppose extreme measures, including threats over the debt limit.

Jeffries, 52, is Rep. Nancy Pelosi's successor as the leader of House Democrats, and the first Black leader of a party in Congress. After last year's midterm elections, his party is narrowly in the minority. Republicans have a four seat majority in the House. But Jeffries believes his caucus will be able to wield some power whenever Republicans wrestle with their own internal divisions.

This month, House Republicans displayed their divisions, needing fifteen rounds of voting before electing House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Democrats were united: every one of their votes on every ballot went for Jeffries.

He's a native of Brooklyn, a son of public employees who became a corporate lawyer, and then rose in New York's bare-knuckle politics. Elected to Congress in 2012, he proved an effective partisan as one of the managers of President Donald Trump's first impeachment trial, and also effective within his party, rising in the ranks of Democratic leadership.

Though he has a largely progressive voting record himself, Jeffries has said he would not "bend a knee" to "hard-left socialists."

In our conversation, Jeffries offered no critique of his fellow Democrats saying, "we're all off to a great start as a family, nor even a critique of Speaker McCarthy, whom he has dismissed in the past as a "sellout" to Donald Trump.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On working with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy

Speaker McCarthy and I have had some very positive, forward looking conversations about trying to figure out where we can find common ground. We know we are going to strongly disagree in certain areas. That means that we should lean in even harder to try to figure out where the areas of common ground might be in order to deliver.

SI: I want to clarify this. A year or two back, you said McCarthy is not a serious person because he had sold himself effectively to Donald Trump. But you're saying you're now in a room with him and having productive conversations.

Kevin McCarthy was elected as the speaker of the United States House of Representatives. I think he has the confidence of the overwhelming majority of his caucus, his conference, as evidenced by the fact that eventually he got there in terms of being the speaker.

On the debt ceiling

We've incurred these bills. We need to pay them. In fact ... with the debt that we have, 25% of it was incurred during the four years of Donald Trump's presidency. And so, one, we're not going to be lectured about fiscal responsibility. Two, we want to make clear to the American people that the debt ceiling discussion is all about paying bills that have already been incurred. And three, we are not going to negotiate with individuals who have a gun to the head of the American people, the economy, Social Security and Medicare, by threatening to default on our debt.

On whether House Democrats will negotiate with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling

There is a difference between a compromise and a ransom note. And so let me be clear. We are not going to pay a ransom note to extremists in the other party. However, as President Biden has indicated, there's a time and a place to have a discussion about future spending. President Biden is going to put forth a budget. House Republicans on the budget committee will have an opportunity to do the same. We can go through the budget process. We can go through the appropriations process. Those are the appropriate vehicles for trying to find common ground as it relates to how we spend taxpayer dollars in the future.

On what leverage Democrats have to raise the debt ceiling without major concessions

We will be able to, at the end of the day, convince a handful of reasonable Republicans in the House to do what the business community throughout America have suggested needs to be done. What the U.S. Chamber of Commerce believes needs to be done. What Wall Street says needs to be done. Which is to make sure we pay America's bills that have already been incurred.

On keeping progressive and moderate Democrats together

I think that we're all off to a great start together as a family, as a caucus. And as I've repeatedly indicated, I have tremendous respect for every single member of the House Democratic Caucus, from Representative Ocasio-Cortez to Representative Josh Gottheimer, and all points in between, because the fact that we are so diverse, diverse in terms of race or gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identification, life experience, ideology and region. That's what makes the House Democratic Caucus the most authentic representatives of the American people, in my view, because we closely resemble and reflect the gorgeous mosaic of the American people.

On the recent discovery of more classified documents mishandled by White House officials including President Biden, former Vice President Pence and others

This matter is now in the hands of a special prosecutor as it relates to the current president and the former most immediate past president of the United States of America. And I think my view is that the special prosecutor will follow the facts, apply the law, be guided by the Constitution and eventually present that information as to what happened to the American people and to the Department of Justice. And so I don't want to get out ahead of the special prosecutor, but I do think at some point, Congress perhaps will have a discussion about generally dealing with classified documents in a way that makes the most sense as we move forward.

On the days-long effort to elect a speaker of the House for the 118th Congress

I never expected that I would hear my name, I think approximately 3,179 times.

This interview with was produced and edited for air by Julie Depenbrock, Barry Gordemer, and Simone Popperl. Padmananda Rama edited it for digital. contributed to this story

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Simone Popperl is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition and Up First. She joined the network in March 2019, and since then has pitched and edited stories on everything from the legacy of burn pits in Iraq, to never-ending "infrastructure week," to California towns grappling with climate change, to American alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin's ascendance to the top of her sport. She led Noel King's reporting on the early days of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Steve Inskeep's reporting from swing states in the lead up to the 2020 Presidential Election, and Leila Fadel's field reporting from Kentucky on the end of Roe v. Wade.