Some House Democrats are desperate to begin impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is reluctant. It’s up to Rep. Hakeem S. Jeffries to try to keep them all working together.
Mr. Jeffries was thrown into the middle of power and responsibility this year when Democrats took control of the House and he became caucus chairman. Impeachment is perhaps the toughest decision the caucus has faced in years.
The 48-year-old New Yorker generally toes the line of Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, saying impeachment is an option but lawmakers aren’t ready.
Even those actively advocating for impeachment, though, say he has been fair.
“For me, as a judiciary member and former law officer, I’ve seen enough, heard enough, read enough with the Mueller report, but Hakeem helps us consider other things as well,” said Rep. Val Butler Demings, Florida Democrat and a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Jeffries’ office declined to make him available for this article but did provide a statement about his respect for Congress’ role in the process.
“It should not overreach. It should not over-investigate. It should not over-politicize. The appropriate committees should surgically, scrupulously and soberly conduct their investigations and follow the facts wherever they may lead,” said Michael Hardaway, Mr. Jeffries’ communications director.
Mr. Jeffries, in his fourth term representing his Brooklyn district, is the fifth-highest member of Democratic leadership, behind Mrs. Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina and Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico.
He took over after the former caucus chairman, Rep. Joe Crowley, lost his seat in a primary last year to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a fellow New Yorker.
Once Mrs. Pelosi had sewn up the speaker’s race, the caucus contest was the biggest battle within the party.
Mr. Jeffries faced off against Rep. Barbara Lee of California, a 12-term liberal whose most noteworthy moment in Congress was when she was the only lawmaker to vote against the 2001 resolution authorizing the U.S. to go to war in Afghanistan in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The outcome of the race ignited intense reactions, with some members suggesting Ms. Lee’s defeat was a show of ageism and sexism. Mr. Jeffries has since overcome that division, and Democrats see him as a unifying force in a party embroiled in debate over impeachment.
Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat, said part of Mr. Jeffries’ skill as a leader comes from winning the support of lawmakers who may not have backed him at first.
“I was strongly for Barbara Lee,” he told The Washington Times. “But a few days later he called me. We bonded over our young family. He had some parenting advice, he said how he wanted to bring the caucus together. He’s a very personable individual.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, whose staff told Politico they were disappointed with the caucus chair race, said she appreciates Mr. Jeffries’ focus on making members collaborate.
“One of his strengths is communication,” she told The Washington Times. “He’s a really strong communicator, which means he’s able to kind of bring different parts of the party to a table for a conversation.”
Mr. Jeffries has succeeded in getting legislation passed. Three bills he sponsored have become law, though they were small tweaks. His bigger success was legislation last year to reduce federal prison sentences. He teamed up with Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia Republican, on criminal justice reform.
President Trump signed a Senate version of their measure in December.
Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Collins teamed up last week on legislation to lower prescription drug costs by making it easier to challenge patents of brand-name pharmaceuticals.
“I believe we’re one of the best teams at moving legislation that Congress has seen in several congresses,” Mr. Collins said. “We come together when we find areas of agreement.”
Yet investigations and impeachment are defining House Democrats’ majority so far.
Mr. Jeffries has kept in line with Mrs. Pelosi, insisting impeachment isn’t the priority.
“We did not run on impeachment. We did not win on impeachment. We are not governing with a focus on impeachment,” he said in March.
Rep. Katie Hill, a California Democrat who is one of the freshman class’ two representatives to leadership, said she has learned a lot from Mr. Jeffries about balancing the diverse needs of the caucus.
“You have to navigate the needs of everybody, and I think he takes a very measured approach to it, even though in a district like his it would be very easy for him to come out strong for impeachment,” she told The Times.
However, as pressure mounts within the caucus and from its base to start impeachment proceedings, Mr. Jeffries has been swept up in the criticism aimed at leadership’s methodical approach.
Billionaire Tom Steyer’s “Need to Impeach” group this month took aim at Mr. Jeffries and a dozen other Democrats, including Mr. Clyburn and Mr. Lujan.
The group vowed to target each of their districts with digital ads, billboards and local events to pressure them to move on impeachment.
His colleagues, though, said Mr. Jeffries’ position requires him to perform a delicate balancing act: listening to lawmakers who want more action while protecting those in frontline districts.
“When you’re caucus chair, it’s a member service job,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat. “It’s not like being speaker where you lead the caucus. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t from time to time lead, but he does more of a listening and service kind of job.”