Nobody will ever accuse them of being pals, but Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and new Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries have embarked on their working relationship with a grudging respect that was missing when Nancy Pelosi was in charge.
The cordiality was on display on Wednesday when Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Jeffries were spotted exiting the speaker’s office while engaged in a friendly and businesslike discussion. Their interaction was in stark contrast with the scene a day earlier at a raucously partisan State of the Union address when President Biden and House Republicans exchanged barbs.
For now, it seems Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Jeffries are living up to their words at the beginning of their leadership jobs in January.
Mr. Jeffries promised to extend “our hand of partnership” to the McCarthy-led House Republicans when he took over his post as minority leader and vowed to “find common ground whenever and wherever possible on behalf of the American people.”
Mr. McCarthy struck a similar note. He promised the Jeffries-led House Democrats that “our debates will be passionate, but they will not be personal. That is my commitment to you.”
Mr. McCarthy has made it clear that he plans to have an open line of communication with Mr. Jeffries. Republicans say that is a big leap from previous years, when they learned about Mrs. Pelosi’s plans through news media.
Still, the two Generation Xers face serious challenges if they hope to fulfill those promises without alienating core principles and members of their sprawling caucuses.
That is particularly true in the polarized political environment in which lawmakers from both parties — often representing safe red or blue congressional districts — have more to gain from partisan warfare than legislative wins that could haunt them in primary contests.
For the moment, however, the warm public declarations from Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Jeffries mark a stark departure from the chilly McCarthy-Pelosi relationship.
“I think Jeffries [has] got a different style, and Pelosi, she’s 80-some years old, she comes from a different era,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, South Carolina Republican. “Pelosi smiled when she was taking a baseball bat to your head. She smiled when a knife was going in your back.”
Indeed, Mrs. Pelosi called Mr. McCarthy a “moron” after she was asked about his critique of a mask mandate in the House, and she poked fun at his struggles to win the votes needed to capture the speakership.
Mr. McCarthy, meanwhile, once quipped at a fundraising event that after he peeled the speaker’s gavel out of Mrs. Pelosi’s hands, “It will be hard not to hit her with it.”
Mr. McCarthy did not follow through on the joke, but he settled some Pelosi-era scores during his first month on the job.
For starters, he followed through on his promise to deny Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff — a pair of longtime Pelosi allies and top Republican foils — seats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
It was an act of retribution against Mrs. Pelosi and other Democrats for voting to remove Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona from their committees over their offensive rhetoric.
Mr. McCarthy’s decision also stemmed from Mrs. Pelosi’s decision to bar pro-Trump Republicans from serving on the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. That move set a standard for the way the majority handles minority appointments.
Mr. McCarthy, at the same time, has tried to forge a working relationship with Mr. Jeffries by depoliticizing some of the inner workings of Congress.
The House, for instance, voted overwhelmingly to establish a select committee focused on threats from China. To win Democratic buy-in for the effort, Mr. McCarthy assured his colleagues that the panel would be nonpartisan.
“We want serious lawmakers,” Mr. McCarthy said. “This isn’t for somebody to go in and be viral to make some point. This is to work together as one Congress on one of our greatest challenges for the future.”
After Republicans voted to oust Rep. Illhan Omar of Minnesota from the Foreign Affairs Committee for her anti-Israel comments, Mr. McCarthy offered Democrats a fig leaf by announcing the formation of a bipartisan committee responsible for updating the code of conduct for lawmakers.
Though it appears Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Jeffries are off to a friendly start, Capitol Hill’s battle-tested lawmakers are dubious about how long the good vibes will last.
Rep. James Clyburn, South Carolina Democrat, said he finds it hard to believe Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Jeffries will have a better working relationship than Mr. McCarthy had with Mrs. Pelosi.
“That’s definitely not happening here on this Hill. These outside forces got us where we are,” said Mr. Clyburn, a longtime Pelosi lieutenant who stayed on as assistant Democratic leader under Mr. Jeffries.
Other Democrats said the onus is on Mr. McCarthy to ensure his relationship with Mr. Jeffries is productive and less antagonistic.
“I think [Mr. Jeffries] is an extraordinary leader of our caucus. He’s a serious legislator and excellent and passionate orator, someone who has really brought the Democrats together,” said Rep. David Cicilline, Rhode Island Democrat. “I think he has the full confidence of our caucus. Kevin McCarthy is wise to understand it’s worth having a relationship with him.”
Rep. Claudia Tenney, a New York Republican who served with Mr. Jeffries in the State Assembly, said the ball is in Mr. Jeffries’ court.
“Nancy Pelosi had a lot more years of experience and went through highs and lows,” Ms.Tenney said before noting that Mr. Jeffries cut his teeth in a political climate known more for the dominance of Democrats than bipartisan dealmaking. “So I think it’s going to be interesting to see if he’s willing to even be bipartisan.”