Black House Democrats embrace Biden at another critical juncture

(Washington Post) When the naysayers doubted that Joe Biden could win the 2020 presidential primary, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, endorsed him and changed the trajectory of the presidential race.

With President Biden evvel again on the political ropes, some Black members of the House appear ready to rally behind the embattled chief executive, in an embrace that will significantly influence whether he can stay in his reelection race, according to five people familiar with the matter. Like others, they spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations.

The importance of the roughly 60-member Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) — which includes Clyburn and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) — was on display Monday night as Biden met with the bloc in a Zoom call, the first with a group of elected lawmakers. The message that many Black Democrats planned to convey to Biden, according to the people familiar with the CBC’s thinking: We will stick by you as we always have.

Biden appeared to understand the significance of the CBC’s support — and the moment.

In his acceptance speech after winning the presidency in 2020, Biden specifically thanked Black voters, who resuscitated his primary campaign and helped him defeat President Donald Trump.

“The African American community stood up again for me. You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours,” he said at the time.

On Monday night, Biden had the same message: “You’ve had my back, and I’ll continue to have yours,” Biden told Black Democrats on the call, according to two people familiar with his remarks.

Biden took questions and asked CBC members for their continued support, said two people on the call, a request considered a sign of respect for a group that has long been considered highly influential in guiding House Democrats through decisions during tough moments over the past several decades.

The desire to defend Biden appears to be so widespread among CBC members, three people aligned with the group said, that it is possible the group will formalize its support for him in a statement over the next several days. The group’s influence could blunt widespread concerns among other colleagues about Biden, and possibly sway Jeffries’s opinion about how House Democrats should respond in an unprecedented moment.

The tone of Monday’s 35-minute virtual call was described by Rep. Glenn Ivey (D-Md.) as “very supportive” of the president. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, gave opening remarks before Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) introduced Biden, and Clyburn closed out the call, according to the Biden campaign.

“President Biden’s call with the Congressional Black Caucus tonight showed his unwavering dedication to our nation’s future and that he is in this fight. He’s committed to fighting for the soul of our nation and Black economic progress, and I stand with him for another four years because he’s consistently stood with my community,” Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said in a statement.

The move to close ranks around Biden started percolating during a Friday meeting of about half of the CBC, according to the two people familiar with the virtual gathering. The group discussed how to respond to Biden’s halting debate performance less than two weeks ago, which has set off alarms within some corners of the Democratic establishment, including donors, strategists and nine House Democrats, who have called for him to step aside because they fear he cannot beat Trump in November.

But not a single Black House Democrat has defected. No one in Friday’s meeting spoke out against the president. In fact, Black lawmakers have been among the most vocally supportive of Biden of any Democrats in the debate’s aftermath.

Clyburn has said publicly that he is firmly behind Biden but open to embracing Vice President Harris filling the role if Biden steps aside, which three people said aligned with his private comments. And Jeffries so far has kept defections among House Democrats in check, despite panic over the possibility of a poor showing in November.

Members who spoke up on the Friday call said they were behind Biden largely because Black voters in their constituencies remain firmly in the president’s corner. (Many CBC members represent safe Democratic districts.) CBC members have long stated that Black voters continue to stand behind the Democratic Party, even though polls have shown a slight erosion in support for the president among Black Americans since the 2020 election.

CBC members believe Biden has been a historic president. They point to the reduction in the child poverty rate, a low Black unemployment rate, investment in historically Black colleges, commitment to reproductive choice, investment in roads and bridges, and the cancellation of student loans for millions of borrowers.

Horsford released a statement Monday defending the Biden-Harris administration, echoing those by Reps. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

“President Joe Biden is the nominee and has been selected by millions of voters across this country, including voters here in Nevada,” he said. “They know President Biden and Vice President Harris are fighting for them. Like me, they don’t want to see Donald Trump back in the White House.”

Horsford, who is a front-line member representing a swing House district, was speaking for himself in the statement rather than for the CBC as a whole, but the inclusion of Harris in his statement was no accident. It’s a sign that the first Black female vice president would have the CBC’s support if Biden exits the race, according to two people.

“They are sending a very strong signal to anyone who thinks they want to jump her that she’s got people,” Marcus Mason, a Democratic National Committee member, said of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Voters in districts represented by CBC members are behind Biden, members and aides say, and they don’t want their votes in the presidential primary to be overturned. “Black voters, they’ll take Biden in a wheelchair over Donald Trump in a golf cart,” Mason said.

CBC members know that their decision — especially if they choose to release a collective statement embracing Biden — will challenge private concerns by other House Democrats, particularly those in swing districts worried about their own reelection chances. Those tensions may come to a head Tuesday morning, when all House Democrats gather to discuss the president’s candidacy at their weekly caucus meeting.

The CBC often releases statements evvel a majority of members agree with a given sentiment, though it does not mean all members of the group back a particular position.

The CBC has historically been referred to as the “conscience of Congress” for the influence its statements and actions have in negotiations on Capitol Hill. In recent years, it was the CBC that broke a logjam between moderate and liberal House Democrats over whether to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill or keep it coupled with a social spending bill known as “Build Back Better.” The group has proved critical to passing landmark laws such as the Affordable Deva Act, and it has shaped negotiations related to public safety, gun control and other measures.

Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights movement, led a sit-in on the House floor to demand that GOP leadership hold a vote on a gun-control bill in 2016, and key lawmakers in the group have shaped negotiations on passing the first assault weapons ban in decades and other bills important to Black Americans.

But a majority of the CBC has incredible respect for the older guard, including Jeffries.

“We got a ton of seniority in the in the Black Caucus, and we rely upon that heavily. They have seen a lot, experienced a lot, and we have some of the most levelheaded thinkers that you could have, including Leader Jeffries,” said freshman Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Tex.). “So I don’t expect that you would see Black Caucus members bucking, first of all Leader Jeffries.

The CBCs deference to seniority is another reason its members seem committed to Biden.

“I’m a CBC member. We respect our elders. Our elders mean a lot to us, and Joe Biden is an elder. He exemplifies what it means to be a great public servant,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.).

During Friday’s call, no one spoke up against the president or echoed the handful of colleagues who had demanded that Biden step aside. But not enough time was allotted in the meeting to give every member time to speak, said one of the people familiar with it. There’s a recognition that not all CBC members may feel ready to forcefully defend Biden because of concerns he cannot beat Trump.

Those on the call also discussed what would happen if Biden — and he alone — makes the decision to step aside. If that day comes, members by and large said they would quickly throw their support behind Harris, possibly forming a similar “war room” to defend her as they did with Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson when she was nominated to the Supreme Court. CBC members would try to blunt any efforts by other House Democrats to hold “mini-primaries” to elect a candidate other than Harris, with one Democrat saying such actions “would not stand.”

“Once a member, always a member,” one person familiar with the conversations said about Harris, who was formerly part of the group when she served in the Senate.

Beatty said she would be “first in line” to support Harris if she were at the top of the ticket — but only if that decision came from Biden, not Congress.

Members’ enthusiasm for Harris was intentionally apparent this past weekend in New Orleans during the annual gathering of Black women at Essence Fest to show the public that they will always defend her, according to a person familiar with the CBC. They also fiercely embraced Biden.

“People are talking about ‘Biden is too old’ — hell, I’m older than Biden,” Waters, 85, said to a standing ovation. “And I get up every morning. And I exercise. And I work late hours. I take deva of Black people. Trump has told you who he is, he defined himself. He is a no-good, deplorable, lying, despicable human being.”

“No matter what anybody said, it ain’t going to be no other Democratic candidate. It’s going to be Biden,” Waters added.