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Covering Kamala Harris Covering Kamala Harris

Essential Politics: Failure of elections bill shows limits of Kamala Harris’ influence

Harris sits with two people at a table
Vice President Kamala Harris, center, sits with Texas state Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Gina Hinojosa during a meeting with Texas Democrats in Washington on Wednesday, June 16, 2021.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

This is the June 23, 2021, edition of the Essential Politics newsletter. Like what you’re reading? Sign up to get it in your inbox three times a week.

There was justifiable skepticism this month when President Biden announced Vice President Kamala Harris would lead an effort to expand voting rights and pledged the administration would “fight like heck with every tool at my disposal” to pass a major bill in Congress.

Fast forward three weeks, and Democrats are where many thought they would be: nowhere. The Senate killed the House-passed “For the People Act” on Tuesday, with Democrats lacking the 60 votes to overcome a Republican filibuster.

As for Harris’ role, the takeaway was how little we saw of her. No dramatic trips to the Senate to court votes. No statements on how to find compromise. No known talks with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the sole Democratic holdout in supporting the bill, or Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican who kept his members from breaking ranks in opposition to even debating it.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. This morning, I look at the fallout from the failure of Democrats’ voting rights bill.

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Senate dinners are fun but where’s the beef?

First, a qualifier. This may not be the end of the road for federal voting legislation. Democrats are also pushing a narrower bill called the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that would strengthen the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. That bill could be broadened and passed if Democrats can bring enough Republicans along. If it fails as well, pressure will build from the left for Democrats to end the Senate filibuster.

“The fight is not over,” Harris told reporters after the vote to consider the broader bill fell short. She had come to the Senate earlier to cast a tie-breaking vote to confirm Kiran Ahuja, Biden’s nominee to be director of the Office of Personnel Management and then to preside over the debate on the voting bill, a task normally assigned to junior senators.

A White House official said Harris spoke over the weekend to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat. She’s made calls to other members of Congress and voting advocates.

Her lack of any significant engagement in the Senate has not been a surprise. She served only four years there, a good portion of that time running for president. Her best-known interaction with Manchin involved angering him, when she went on television in his home state earlier this year to push for an economic relief bill, and he publicly complained she hadn’t given him a heads-up.

Harris is working on her Senate relationships. Last week, she held a dinner for women senators of both parties at the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence. Social media posts from the event suggested it was well-received, the kind of bipartisan comradery we don’t see much in today’s Senate.

During Tuesday’s debate, Harris met in her Senate office with Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who has expressed support for the John Lewis bill, but Murkowski told reporters they did not discuss the voting legislation. Another source said they discussed Biden’s proposed infrastructure bill, among other topics.

Even strong personal relationships only take you so far. Biden remembers a Senate where warhorses like Ted Kennedy, the late Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain, the late Arizona Republican, could count on each other over the long term, and take hits from their respective parties’ voters for what the senators believed was the good of the country.

The last few years have suggested that attitude is rare, if it even exists. Senators generally act in their immediate political self-interest, throwing personal relationships or long-term governing principles aside when they conflict with the perceived desires of the party base.

In her 2019 memoir, Harris wrote about the cross-party relationship she built with Sen. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, over discussions about the nation’s racial history when they served together on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Yet when it came time to certify the 2020 election results, that Biden and Harris had beaten Donald Trump and Mike Pence, Lankford joined a handful of Republican senators in announcing they’d object, joining Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Lankford withdrew his objection only after the Jan. 6 siege on the Capitol as the certification process was underway.

Whatever friendship he had with Harris seemed to matter little when it mattered most — underscoring the limits of Harris’ influence when it comes to legislating in the modern Congress.

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What can she do except complain?

So what can Harris do to advance voting rights? Her advisors say promoting the federal legislation is just a part of her charge. She held meetings with activists, pastors and elected officials from three states last week to highlight Republicans’ efforts in many state capitals to restrict voting and, in some cases, to allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the people.

She is hoping to bring attention to the issue and unite activists and local business leaders in opposition. As I wrote last week, she may also be able to motivate more people to register to vote and show up at the polls.

But let’s be clear. This falls far short of what voting rights advocates want.

“What is she going to do on state legislation except complain about it?” Nate Persily, a prominent election law expert and Stanford Law School professor, told me last week.

And her presence won’t help, and could be counterproductive, in red states. “I don’t think the vice president is necessarily going to have a lot of influence with Republican legislators,” said Lawrence Norden, director of the Brennan Center’s Election Reform Program.

Norden says Harris might be effective, however, in giving cover to local election officials — many of whom are Republican and subject to harassments and threats.

“To the extent that the vice president can work with Republican politicians to make a statement about how valued election officials are, I think that could help cooling at least some of the rhetoric,” he said.

Some election officials say they have already had enough. Roxanna Moritz left her job as auditor, the top election official in Scott County, Iowa, in April. The Democrat had just been reelected to a 4-year term.

“We were the first state to criminalize poll workers” if they were found to violate state guidance, she said.

Moritz was not just worried about the fine, but also about losing her ability to vote if convicted. She called the last election the perfect storm — coming amid a pandemic, with a president who was spreading false rumors that the election would be rigged and stolen from him and, during the primary elections, a curfew because of civil unrest.

She believes federal legislation should be the top priority. Short of that, she hopes Harris can get local officials the money they need to administer voting and help identify and respond to the threats to election workers.

“Education in how our elections work is so crucial right now,” she said.

The view from Washington

— Sen. Bernie Sanders confirmed that Senate Democrats plan to include a pathway to citizenship for certain immigrants in the country illegally as part of the sweeping infrastructure bill they hope to enact on a partisan basis this year, Jennifer Haberkorn writes.

— The Supreme Court dealt the NCAA a unanimous defeat and ruled the multibillion-dollar college sports industry can be sued under antitrust laws for conspiring to make money by insisting star athletes be unpaid amateurs, David G. Savage writes.

— From Del Quentin Wilber: John Demers, the top national security official at the Department of Justice, says he was unaware federal prosecutors had secretly obtained records concerning Democratic lawmakers.

— From Molly O’Toole: Asylum seekers under the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy whose cases were closed — many for reasons beyond their control — will now be able to come into the U.S. to pursue asylum claims, the Biden administration said Tuesday.

The view from California

— A federal appeals court has put on hold a judge’s decision to overturn California’s 30-year-old ban on assault weapons. But the legal fight could continue for months and may even be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, Maura Dolan writes.

— Also from Dolan: A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a California law that requires women be placed on the boards of publicly owned companies.

— Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he asked top aide Ana Guerrero to “step away” from her responsibilities after The Times reviewed Facebook comments in which she disparaged labor icon Dolores Huerta and several prominent California leaders, report Dakota Smith and Richard Winton.

— Four months after Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón sent a request to law enforcement agencies across the county, more than 40 departments have yet to provide his office with names of officers who have histories of dishonesty and other misconduct that could affect their credibility in court, Ben Poston reports.

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