Kamala Harris could break a record. Democrats wish she didn't have to
Vice President Kamala Harris' shining moment as a tiebreaker came when she cast the deciding vote on last year's $1.9 trillion stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan, a landmark achievement of the Biden administration.
Vice President Kamala Harris is on course to set an unusual record and break the most tie votes in the US Senate.
But many Democrats and progressives don't see the award as a great honor.
"If that's victory, my goodness folks, then we have to wish for better for ourselves," said Tre' Easton, associate director of the Battle Born Collection, a liberal advocacy group.
As vice president, Harris has few jobs mandated by the constitution -- if necessary, succeeding the president, presiding over the Senate and breaking ties there. The latter requirement allowed Democrats to take control of the evenly divided Senate in January 2021, raising their hopes that they might be able to push through legislation expanding voting access, guaranteeing family vacations for new parents and putting money in combating climate change.
Instead, they were largely frustrated by the party's inability to pass such key components of President Biden's agenda, including a bill that would legalize abortion to counter last month's Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade .
Indeed, Harris' undecided votes were required primarily to clear the nomination backlog, which highlighted the limits of the Biden administration's governing power in the face of fierce partisan opposition in Congress.
Their inability to help pass substantive legislation has also increased pressure on Democrats to destroy the Senate filibuster, a rule that requires the legislature to win the support of 60 senators before it can move on to a final vote. To do that, they would need the support of all 50 Democrats, which was also elusive.
Harris has broken 23 ties since taking office and has a strong chance of beating the record in the coming months. The only vice presidents to have cut more ties are John Adams, 29, and John C. Calhoun, 31, both of whom served two terms in the 17th and early 18th centuries, respectively, when the Senate was less than half that size as today .
Harris' undecided role is unusual in modern times. The Senate is rarely 50-50 tied for long periods of time. The last time that happened was more than two decades ago - for less than six months - when Dick Cheney was Vice President.
Harris got her opportunity when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff clinched surprise victories in the January 2021 Georgia runoff, allowing Democrats to cobble together their tenuous majority thanks to the help of two independents.
Despite the Democrats' limited legislative success, the 50-50 split was valuable to Harris' party. It has ensured Democrats can chair committees, set the Senate calendar and confirm judges, including new Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, more easily. Harris led Jackson's confirmation vote but did not have to cast one — the Senate approved her nomination 53-47. That nomination would certainly have been delayed or rejected if Republicans had controlled the chamber.
Vice President Kamala Harris presides over the Senate to cast her first voting vote on February 5, 2021. (Senate TV via Associated Press)
Glynda Carr, president of a group campaigning for black women's choice called Higher Heights for America, said Harris' role in making history needed to be recognized. But also the fact that there are currently no black women in the Senate. Harris was the only one before she became vice president.
"When we celebrated Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation, she was presiding," Carr said of Harris. "But there were zero Black women sitting to cast a vote."
Harris' shining moment as a tiebreaker came when she cast the crucial procedural vote on last year's $1.9 trillion stimulus bill known as the American Rescue Plan, a landmark achievement of the Biden administration. Harris' voice was also instrumental in securing a liberal and diverse cast of nominees for key regulatory positions.
But the fact that Democrats needed Harris for the most basic elements of governance -- filling top administrative posts -- shows how badly the Senate has been damaged by the polarization of the nation, said Norm Ornstein, who has studied Congress and is a co-author of It's Even worse than it looks: how the American constitutional system clashed with the new politics of extremism.
"You're getting all Republicans to vote against a lot of these endorsements -- endorsements that would have leaked out in years past," Ornstein said. "And now, just for the sake of obstruction, to force the vice president to come into the Senate to cast that crucial vote."
This dynamic has put Harris and all 50 members of the Senate majority under tremendous deadline pressure. A miscalculation can set back plans by weeks, disrupt the work of the administration and cost the legislature even more time. It can also take up time in the Senate that could be used on more substantive issues.
When Harris was in Los Angeles for the Summit of the Americas in early June, Democrats were surprised when it became clear they would not collect enough votes to pass the nomination for an obscure position at the Department of Labor.
The vote would have been 50-50, resulting in the Senate rejecting Lisa Gomez's nomination. Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) took a last-minute procedural action that ensured Democrats could bring Gomez's nomination back up before Harris was close to the gavel to swing.
Last week, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy's (D-Vt.) office announced he would need hip surgery, giving Democrats another potential absence in the coming weeks.
Overall, 20 of Harris' 23 crucial votes involved endorsements, some of which required her to sever ties with "exoneration motions" to ensure a prospective official or judge could get a Senate vote after a committee bogged down on the nomination was.
The presence of Vice President Kamala Harris at the Americas Summit in Los Angeles in June complicated a Senate vote on a candidate for an obscure position in the Department of Labor.
Both sides have increasingly obstructed each other in recent decades. But Ornstein said Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) maximized strategy during the Obama administration -- sapping time on procedures that otherwise could have been used to govern. The only thing most voters see is the gridlock, which they often blame on the president.
"It comes back to what Mitch said openly: He wants to block every element of the Biden agenda," Ornstein said. "If things are going well and Biden has all his people in place, it may not serve that goal."
McConnell's most notable move was his refusal to hold a single hearing in 2016 for then-Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Anthony Scalia. That act, which remains 11 months into Obama's presidency, helped set the stage for last month's Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion. Three of President Trump's Supreme Court nominees, including the one who took Scalia's seat, aligned themselves with this historic 5-4 majority vote.
Republicans say Democrats have also exploited the rules to force many of Trump's nominees to additional procedural votes for dozens of executive branch positions not previously held by them. A spokesman for McConnell referenced the senator's earlier comments that the two parties must find common ground "between the 40-yard lines" during the Biden presidency because the House and Senate are so narrowly divided.
Despite some frustration that voting rights and other priorities have been hampered, Harris has sought to celebrate her historic role. Her advisors say she's using her time in the Senate to build relationships.
For example, she recently spoke to Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, about wildfires. She looked at baby photos with Ossoff, a new dad. She has participated in side calls with Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, with whom she served on the Intelligence Committee when she was in the Senate.
“Casting groundbreaking votes is about driving the Biden-Harris policies that uplift workers and strengthen the middle class — from casting groundbreaking votes that led to a successful vaccination campaign and record job growth to to affirmative votes that have led to the most disparate sets of judges in American history,” said spokesman Herbie Ziskend.
If Harris breaks the record for tiebreakers, it would be one of the great ironies of history. As the first woman of color to hold a nationally elected office, Harris overtook Calhoun, an avid supporter of slavery and one of the most prominent racist US government figures in history.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
46th President of the United States since 2021
Ketanji Brown Jackson
Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court
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