After the House passed its bipartisan prison reform bill late last month, GOP Rep. Doug Collins and Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries quickly met on the floor for a celebratory embrace.
Months of late-night calls, lobbying and tough negotiations had led to a whopping 360-59 vote — and the third piece of legislation Jeffries and Collins have ushered through the House together in a matter of months.
It’s an impressive record considering the polarized political climate, as well as because their work has been done in the House Judiciary Committee, known lately as “the place bills go to die.”
“We can come together and the partnership that developed, it literally shows you can change things up here,” Collins said in a joint interview with Jeffries at the Capitol.
But that partnership is sure to be tested if Democrats win back the House and consider impeaching President Donald Trump.
Any impeachment proceedings against the president would start in the Judiciary Committee. And Collins, who is angling to become the panel’s top Republican next year, would be the first line of defense for Trump. Like others in the GOP, Collins has criticized the FBI and accused it of bias against the president.
Jeffries brushed off the idea of a nasty partisan fight over impeachment, saying there’s no use in speculating about the future while special counsel Robert Mueller continues his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign and potential obstruction of justice by the president.
“Impeachment is not an issue that is top of mind, certainly for House Judiciary Committee Democrats and for an overwhelming number of the House Democratic Caucus,” Jeffries said. “Let Mueller be Mueller and do his job.”
And Collins said he was confident their relationship could withstand an impeachment-fueled storm. “Our friendship is based on a respect that is deeper than legislation,” he said. “I think that’s some of the things that actually will get us through any of those times.”
At first glance the two men don’t have much in common, aside from both coming to Congress in 2013 after stints in their respective states’ legislatures.
The conservative Collins is a “country Baptist preacher,” as Jeffries fondly describes him, and a fast-talking Georgian who owned a scrapbooking company, practiced law and deployed to Iraq as a military chaplain with the Air Force Reserve before coming to Congress.
Jeffries is a liberal Brooklynite who had high-powered gigs as a corporate attorney, including for Viacom and CBS, before being elected to the New York Assembly and Congress.
Now, the two lawmakers seem on the fast track for plum leadership positions. Collins is currently vice chair of the House GOP Conference and could be Judiciary chairman if Republicans hold on to the House.
Jeffries is co-chairman of House Democrats’ messaging arm and is frequently mentioned by his colleagues as someone they want to see move up the ranks when the caucus’ current longtime leaders move on.
But Jeffries says it was their shared faith background — Collins is still a chaplain in the reserves and Jeffries is a lifelong member of his local Baptist church — that brought the two together.
“He’s obviously got a head for the work and a heart for the people and has drawn from his experiences both as a lawyer and as a pastor,” Jeffries said. “I think that combination really made it clear he’d be a great partner to try to get some things done here in Congress.”
While faith may have helped plant the seeds of their friendship, their bond really cemented over a shared love of music. Jeffries prides himself on being a hip-hop aficionado, noting Brooklyn is where some of the genre’s greatest artists cut their teeth.
Collins says he has more eclectic taste than people might assume considering he hails from one of the most conservative districts in the country. “I go from rap to country to Ne-Yo,” he said. “I listen to everything from AC/DC to Lil Wayne.”
Soon they found themselves working together on the Music Modernization Act — a bill that updates laws governing copyright and royalties for songwriters — which passed the House in April and is waiting for action in the Senate.
Their partnership also led to enactment of another measure clarifying how law enforcement can gain access to data held by U.S. companies overseas, which was included in the omnibus spending package earlier this year.
After passage of the White House-backed prison reform bill, the duo is getting noticed by leadership on both sides of the aisle.
“Together they were relentless to get this important reform on the floor,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said in a statement.
Added House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley of New York: “I think Hakeem Jeffries’ star shot pretty high up this week.”
Crowley said he was “impressed” with Collins as well. “Doug has done a pretty good effort of reaching out to folks on our side of the aisle and coming over and actually engaging us,” he said.
The prison reform bill still faces an uncertain future. Despite strong backing from Trump and his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, the proposal has some powerful opponents in the Senate.
The Collins-Jeffries legislation aims to reduce recidivism rates by rehabilitating prisoners through training and vocational programs. But the plan doesn’t include sentencing reforms that Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and leading civil rights groups say must be included in any overhaul of the criminal justice system.
Collins and Jeffries support sentencing changes but left those more controversial provisions out of the bill because of strong opposition from Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has signaled he’s unlikely to bring the prison bill up for a vote until Republicans can work out their internal differences.
“We sort of knew this was where this was going to come. So we’ve been building this in for several months to say once you get it, how are you going to tackle it?” Collins said. Both men said they hope Trump’s bully pulpit will push the Senate to act.
The bipartisan duo also has one other, less serious, item on their summer to-do list: The lawmakers are mulling releasing a joint playlist.
For Jeffries, his top pick would be “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke. Collins said he’d make sure to include “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding.
“Sometimes you sit on the dock of the bay and you watch the world roll and at the same time you have a moment to reflect,” Collins said. “And this is a moment to reflect on some good things that have been done.”