WASHINGTON — At the time then-Democratic candidate Joe Biden selected her as his running mate, Kamala Harris had been in the Senate for three years, having been elected on the same day as Donald Trump. Biden, by contrast, was a 36-year Senate mainstay before becoming vice president to Barack Obama.
In choosing Harris, a biracial woman from the western United States, Biden was implicitly making her the face of the Democratic Party’s future. The present, however, requires intense negotiations with lawmakers over the president’s ambitious domestic agenda — the kinds of negotiations with which Harris has little experience.
The lack of experience has relegated Harris to a somewhat marginalized role as Biden works furiously with his congressional counterparts to secure a complex and overlapping set of agreements having to do with his $1.2 trillion infrastructure package and $3.5 trillion social and climate agenda.
“She has been active in making calls to members and engaged with our legislative team,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Wednesday’s press briefing in response to a question about Harris’s role in the negotiations with Democratic lawmakers. But Psaki could not say whether Harris has sat in on meetings with Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, whose votes could determine the fate of Biden’s domestic agenda. Nor did she reveal if Harris would travel to Capitol Hill on Thursday, as the House prepared to vote on the infrastructure bill (as of this writing, Harris has not done so).
The vice president's aides say she is deeply involved in talks with lawmakers. They point to her meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus last week and members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus earlier this week. They note that both groups include moderates and progressives, both of which are constituencies the White House has been courting in support of its agenda.
“We’re all hands on deck here and working to get this done,” Psaki said.
Harris was supposed to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill earlier this month, but the meeting was canceled without any explanation. Many of her recent meetings have been with foreign heads of state: Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom, Narendra Modi of India and Nana Afuko-Addo of Ghana. On Tuesday, as Biden hunkered down in Virginia, Harris traveled to George Mason University in Virginia to tout voting rights legislation.
Voting rights and immigration are both part of Harris’s ambitious portfolio. Conservatives have flayed her in recent days for the situation in Del Rio, Texas, where Haitian migrants fleeing political unrest and natural disasters had congregated. It would be difficult to pin the blame on her, but that hasn’t stopped her detractors from trying.
As the first woman, Black person and person of Asian descent to hold the role of vice president, Harris has been the subject of intense scrutiny that her supporters say is unfair and motivated by bias, as well as by the desire to damage the reputation of a likely future presidential candidate.
The redefined role of the vice president may also play a part in the extra attention directed at Harris. Ever since Dick Cheney established his own power center in the George W. Bush administration, the post of second-in-command has been seen as having more than just ceremonial valence.
When he was vice president, Biden was often dispatched to deal with members of Congress, for whom Obama had little patience. Mike Pence, vice president to Donald Trump, came to head the White House coronavirus task force. In the days after the Jan. 6 insurrection, Pence often seemed the senior statesman. It was he, not Trump, who attended Biden’s inauguration two weeks after the riot on Capitol Hill.
White House aides say that Harris has not been marginalized but that, rather, she is one of many in the West Wing working to pass the president’s agenda.
Biden himself is working on the Senate, they say, given how well he knows that chamber and its political intricacies. Outreach to the House has been conducted by top Biden aide Steve Ricchetti, as well as by Louisa Terrell, the White House director of legislative affairs. Then there is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who tends to have a good grasp over her conference and is unlikely to need much help.
At the same time, Harris never developed close relationships with her colleagues during her three years on Capitol Hill. Though she took star turns in the confirmation hearings for Trump appointees including William Barr and Brett Kavanaugh, she had no opportunity to craft major legislation, since Republicans retained control of the Senate until the 2020 election, which made her vice president.
Trying to put added pressure on Manchin or Sinema could backfire. Manchin was angered when, in the very first days of the new administration, Harris gave an interview to a West Virginia television station without notifying him. As for the unpredictable Sinema, she was the only absentee at a dinner the vice president hosted for female members of the Senate in June.
At that dinner, Harris sat next to Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, one of 10 Republican senators who support the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. It is not clear if Harris and Murkowski have spoken since that evening.
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