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Leader Hakeem Jeffries on the Israel-Hamas war, Republicans in Congress, and the stakes of the 2024 election

Hakeem Jeffries: The 60 Minutes Interview
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries: The 60 Minutes Interview 13:27

The United States Congress is not particularly popular these days, and look no further than the current session to understand why. It will likely be the least productive Congress since the Civil War. One lawmaker who's figured out a way to get a few things done is Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. He replaced Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the Democrats in the House over a year ago and the 53-year-old has built a reputation as a consensus builder in his own caucus and as a tough but respectful opponent of the Republican Party. Minority Leader Jeffries could potentially become the first Black speaker of the House, though to hear him tell it, the Democrats are already in charge. 

Hakeem Jeffries: Even though we're in the minority, we effectively have been governing as if we were in the majority because we continue to provide a majority of the votes necessary to get things done. Those are just the facts.

The fact is, Republicans in the House are a majority in name only. With just two votes to spare, infighting has crippled their conference. Even some Republican members are at their wits' end.

Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas, on April 9): The Lord Jesus himself could not manage this conference.

Hakeem Jeffries: It's a difficult situation on the other side of the aisle, because many of my Republican colleagues are more interested in creating chaos, dysfunction, and extremism.

Norah O'Donnell: For what purpose?

Hakeem Jeffries: That's a good question that has to be asked of them. We were sent by the American people, to get things done, to solve problems. At the end of the day, some people don't have that view of the job.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries 60 Minutes

Nine months after getting the job of speaker, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California got dumped by the far-right wing of his party. Following three weeks of paralysis, Mike Johnson of Louisiana took his place.

After he worked with Democrats to pass the foreign aid bill that included $61 billion for Ukraine, Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who opposed it, said she will follow through with a threat to oust him.

Jeffries told us he works to find common ground with the other side of the aisle and at least one Republican who might be happy about that is Speaker Johnson. 

This past week Democrats said they would vote against Congresswoman Greene's effort to remove him.

Norah O'Donnell: Has Speaker Johnson asked for your help?

Hakeem Jeffries: He has not. And our view would traditionally be, "Let the other side work its own mess out." But when that mess starts to impact the ability to do the job on behalf of the American people, then the responsible thing at that moment might be for us to make clear that we will not allow the extremists to throw the Congress and the country into chaos.

As chaos spreads across college campuses nationwide over Israel and Gaza, some far left members of Jeffries' own party have shown support for protestors…

Leader Jeffries, whose district is 11% Jewish, spoke about the protests at his weekly press conference this past Wednesday.

Hakeem Jeffries (on May 1): Peaceful protest is an important part of the fabric of America but we shouldn't see any protest ever veer into threatening the safety and security of others, into anti-semitism, or racism, or xenophobia.

In all, 37 House Democrats recently voted against sending more military aid to Israel.

The divisive issue will follow Leader Jeffries and President Biden into the election this November, where control of the White House and Congress looks like a coin flip.

Norah O'Donnell: What do you think about how Israel has been waging this war against Hamas in Gaza?

Hakeem Jeffries: Israel was put in a very difficult-- situation when it comes to the horrific events of 10/7-- a brutal terrorist attack by Hamas, which is an entity that has sworn to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth. So Israel was in a position where of course it had to respond, to decisively defeat Hamas. At the same time, my view has been that we have to do everything possible to get the hostages out, and to surge humanitarian assistance into Gaza. 

Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries
Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries 60 Minutes

Norah O'Donnell: But isn't it also true that while retaliating and going after Hamas terrorists, that Israel has been indiscriminate in its bombing?

Hakeem Jeffries: I would not say that they've been indiscriminate. I do think what we'd like to see moving forward is the execution of the new phases of this conflict with surgical precision.

Norah O'Donnell: You can still be a strong supporter of Israel and Americans' defense of Israel and be critical of their approach, about how they waged this war in Gaza.

Hakeem Jeffries: That's correct.

Norah O'Donnell: But you seem reluctant to criticize Israel at all.

Hakeem Jeffries: I'm dealing with the facts-- on the ground. 

Norah O'Donnell: The facts are there are – according to the UN – half of Gaza's 2.2 million people are on the verge of famine. Ha-- has Israel done enough to get food and aid into Gaza?

Hakeem Jeffries: Israel clearly-- needs to do more, as-- as they have recently acknowledged through their actions to surge humanitarian assistance-- into Gaza. The other thing that I think-- is important--

Norah O'Donnell: Only after they killed seven aid workers from World Central Kitchen--

Hakeem Jeffries: Correct. And that was-- that-- that was horrific, including one American. Now in terms of the loss of innocent Palestinian life in this tough theater of war, that is deeply disturbing, tragic, and should be painful for anyone who has a shred of humanity in their body. 

In March, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a staunch supporter of Israel, spoke out against the way it's waging war in Gaza.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (in March): The fourth major obstacle to peace is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Norah O'Donnell: Was Leader Schumer's speech a turning point?

Hakeem Jeffries: Anything that Chuck Schumer has to say-- on the subject is gonna be incredibly important and received. But at the same time, every single member of Congress has the responsibility of answering to their constituency. That's the beauty of American democracy. So what Leader Schumer has to say on a given issue, what Mitch McConnell has to say on a given issue, yeah, there's some importance connected to it in Congress inside the Beltway.

Norah O'Donnell: That was a very long answer without answering my question. (laugh)

Hakeem Jeffries: Well, it-- it was-- it--

Norah O'Donnell: I mean, come on.

Hakeem Jeffries: Yeah.

Norah O'Donnell: Chuck Schumer criticizing the Prime Minister of Israel, calling for him to be replaced, that's a big deal.

Hakeem Jeffries: Chuck Schumer's words speak for themselves. But I think that trying to suggest that Leader Schumer is somehow undermining the U.S.-Israel relationship is ridiculous. 

Norah O'Donnell: How worried are you that voters' frustration with President Biden over the war in Gaza could hurt Democrats' chances in this election year?

Hakeem Jeffries: We can't take any vote for granted. But I also believe that, at the end of the day, voters are gonna look at the totality of circumstances. Who is fighting to deliver for everyday Americans, and who is simply fighting for himself? 

Hakeem Jeffries says he learned about fighting for everyday Americans from his parents. His father was a substance abuse counselor. His mother, a social worker, who Jeffries says taught him and his brother – a college professor – to work hard and be good to people. Jeffries attended NYU Law School, worked for a prestigious law firm, then spent a few years as an attorney for 60 Minutes' parent company, CBS, before entering politics in 2006.

Norah O'Donnell and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries
Norah O'Donnell and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries 60 Minutes

Norah O'Donnell: You are the first Black leader for either party in either house ever. What does that say about America?

Hakeem Jeffries: Government of the people, by the people, and for the people isn't just a theoretical concept. Like, it actually exists in America.

He was raised in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a few blocks away from his district…

… where Sundays were for church. At 12 years old, he became an usher, and says it taught him how to talk to people … 

Jeffries says he visited more than 60 churches in Brooklyn last year.

One of Jeffries' allies told us his ability to connect to both young and old Black voters makes him an important surrogate for President Biden this fall.

Norah O'Donnell: Black voters are a core Democratic constituency. Why do you think support for President Biden has decreased among Black voters?

Hakeem Jeffries: I think that tremendous progress has been made-- for African Americans under the leadership of Joe Biden that's quantifiable. But the reality is, there's still real challenges.

One new challenge in communities in New York city and in many others around the country is the influx of migrants. Shelters to house thousands of them have gone up in and around Jeffries' district.

Norah O'Donnell: What do you say to voters who not only see migrants streaming into the U.S. not just from Mexico and Latin America, but also from China and other countries and wonder, "What's Congress doing about this?"

Hakeem Jeffries: We have a broken immigration system and we have clear challenges at the border that we have to confront decisively and in a bipartisan way. And the American people are crying out for us to do something about the situation at the border in a manner consistent with our values. 

Norah O'Donnell: How big of an issue will abortion rights be this election year?

Hakeem Jeffries: It's gonna be an incredibly significant issue because on its own, it's about freedom. And the extreme MAGA Republicans have set in motion the erosion of reproductive freedom. We're gonna fight for it with everything that we've got at our disposal. If Roe v. Wade can fall, anything can fall. Social Security can fall. Medicare can fall. Voting rights can fall. And God help us all, but democracy itself can fall. If Roe v. Wade can fall, then anything can fall.

House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries
House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries 60 Minutes

Leader Jeffries says Democrats have a story to tell beyond what voters have to lose in November, and pointed to legislative wins for gun safety, and the billions invested in American manufacturing and infrastructure.

Hakeem Jeffries: Those are real results. 

Norah O'Donnell: But two-thirds of voters think the economy was better under President Trump.

Hakeem Jeffries: Well, that's just not the case. And we have to do a better job of laying out the facts that the economy has dramatically improved under the leadership of President Joe Biden. 

Norah O'Donnell: But if-- if those are the facts, why don't voters believe it? Is that a communication problem?

Hakeem Jeffries: Voters understand that more needs to be done, that there are challenges that remain. We understand we have to lower costs. We have to end price gouging. We have to grow the middle class. We have to keep our communities safe. We have to solve the problems and challenges at the border. We're on the right side of those issues. And we just have to make sure we make that case in a compelling, a clear, and a comprehensive way to the American people.

Norah O'Donnell: You admit you haven't done that yet?

Hakeem Jeffries: It's a work in progress. 

Produced by Keith Sharman. Associate producer, Roxanne Feitel. Broadcast associates, Eliza Costas and Callie Teitelbaum. Edited by Craig Crawford.

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