The vice president dialed up Sens. Deb Fischer, Shelley Moore Capito and Joni Ernst on the Supreme Court pick.
The one-on-one outreach comes as Vice President Kamala Harris has struggled to find her footing as an effective emissary for President Joe Biden. | Susan Walsh/AP Photo
By Marianne LeVine and Christopher Cadelago
02/15/2022 05:37 PM EST
Updated: 02/15/2022 05:45 PM EST
Vice President Kamala Harris, who earned a reputation in the Senate as a tenacious questioner of judicial nominees, is leveraging her chamber connections for the forthcoming Supreme Court fight.
Harris, after propelling her Trump-era rise in national politics through a Judiciary Committee spot, has recently reached out to women senators on both sides of the aisle to seek their input on the upcoming Supreme Court vacancy.
“She was information gathering. I appreciated it,” said Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.). “She asked me what my priorities were, and any other feedback I had. She’s very much in listening mode.”
The one-on-one outreach comes as Harris has struggled to find her footing as an effective emissary for President Joe Biden. She has taken on the deeply challenging core issues of Central American migration and voting rights, but the former remains a problem for the administration and the latter push faltered in the Senate. Now, Harris is poised to get more assertive, on wooing high-court votes and beyond.
This week, the vice president is headed to the big security conference in Munich, a trip that’s seen as her biggest diplomatic test to date, as the U.S. warns that Russia could invade Ukraine. On the home front, her own political and legal backgrounds make her a natural fit to be part of Biden’s Supreme Court selection and nomination process. And she’s not just reaching out to Democrats about the president’s still-unnamed pick..
Sens. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) have all spoken to Harris about the Supreme Court vacancy, which Biden has vowed to fill with the first Black woman justice. That’s on top of the vice president’s conversations with at least five Democratic senators: Smith, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, Washington’s Patty Murray, Illinois’ Tammy Duckworth and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow. Six of those senators confirmed they’d spoken to Harris in interviews.
Some of Harris’ former Senate GOP colleagues remain skeptical of her influence. But Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who served alongside Harris for four years as the Judiciary panel’s only Black members, said the vice president “feels very passionately” about the issue.
“She’s a partner in this process and I think she’s going to play a very important role,” said Booker. “I just know when it comes to this Supreme Court pick she is in the mix everywhere I look.”
During Harris’ time on the judiciary committee, she acquired a formidable reputation for grilling then-President Donald Trump’s nominees, including now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She’s also been the first woman of color — and Black woman — to serve in many of her past elected offices, including district attorney of San Francisco, attorney general of California and a senator from the state. Biden has pledged to nominate a Black woman for the Supreme Court post being vacated by retiring justice, Stephen Breyer.
Harris participated in Biden’s meeting Thursday with Senate Judiciary Democrats. The president has also done his own outreach to Republican swing votes about the forthcoming nomination, including Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine.
“She was talking about the process, and that their focus is really to have a good process,” Fischer said. “She understands what’s necessary. I’m sure she’ll continue to help the president reach out to senators.”
Bakari Sellers, a longtime Harris ally and former South Carolina state lawmaker, described her conversations with former Senate colleagues as in keeping with Biden’s interest in a less partisan Supreme Court confirmation this year.
“She could sit on her hands and be vote No. 51,” Sellers said. “But you want to have a Supreme Court justice that comes in in a bipartisan fashion. It’s somewhat necessary to preserve the integrity of the court and to give people a rejuvenated belief in democracy.”
Fischer, Capito and Ernst attended a dinner Harris hosted last year for women senators, many of whom she knows from her time in office. The vice president may not be the best Supreme Court messenger for every Senate Republican, however.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who spoke to the White House counsel about the incoming nomination but not to Harris, quipped that “I don’t know what she does all day … I guess they’re trying to find something for her to do.”
Sellers countered that tapping Harris to serve in a more central role for the Supreme Court nomination fight demonstrated that the administration is learning how best to deploy her. He likened the VP to the talented wide receiver on her beloved San Francisco 49ers, Deebo Samuel, who often gets slotted as a running back as well.
“You got to figure out how to get them the ball,” Sellers said. “They are still feeling that part and learning it. There have been many of us who have been yelling for a year-plus to use her; get her out more. And if you scream loud enough, they’ll hear you.”
A White House official, addressing Harris’ outreach on condition of anonymity, said only that she is making calls to senators on both sides of the aisle.
Harris’ experience with evaluating nominees for the bench dates to before her time on the Judiciary Committee. As California attorney general, she served on the state’s commission on judicial appointments when Leondra Kruger — now a frontrunner for Biden’s Supreme Court nomination — was confirmed to California’s highest court in 2014.
Harris’ previous Hill outreach has extended beyond migration and voting rights to the administration’s biggest priorities, including elements of the infrastructure and social spending packages. But Biden’s own deep ties in the Capitol — as well as elevated roles he’s given others, such as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg— have at times overshadowed her.
But Harris has also made some missteps, such as a West Virginia media appearance last year that tweaked Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Still, Harris can lean on close ties to aides involved in the Supreme Court confirmation process. Minyon Moore, whom Biden tapped to help with the nomination, is among the vice president’s unofficial outside advisers. And Kristine Lucius, Harris’ current legislative director, is a former chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Burgess Everett contributed to this report.
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Harris works her old Senate colleagues in anticipation of SCOTUS fight – POLITICO