WASHINGTON (thehill): Vice President Harris finds herself at the center of another high-stakes, messy policy fight after President Biden put her in charge of his administration’s efforts to protect voting rights in the face of numerous state efforts to restrict access to the ballot.
Biden announced the major addition to Harris’s portfolio just days before she will travel to Guatemala and Mexico to meet with leaders there about the root causes of migration, the other high-profile issue she is tasked with addressing.
The combination puts Harris in a challenging position where she is tasked with finding solutions for two major issues that have persisted across several administrations. It will test her political capital and negotiating skills, with the battle over a federal voting rights bill largely playing out in the Senate.
“The president sees the vice president as an important partner and somebody who can work to take on challenging and hard initiatives. That’s the role of the modern-day vice president,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday.
Harris asked to take the lead on voting rights, Psaki told reporters, calling it an issue the vice president is “personally committed to and passionate about.” Harris has a history of advocating for voting rights as a senator and attorney general from California, including being an original co-sponsor of the For The People Act.
“This is something that she has led on before, and that’s why she wanted to take this on,” said one White House official.
During a visit to mark the 100th anniversary of a race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., on Tuesday, Biden called the flurry of bills in GOP-led states including Georgia, Florida and Texas to make it more difficult for some to vote an “unprecedented assault on our democracy.”
Progressives and voting rights groups applauded the issue landing on Harris’s plate as a sign the White House is taking the threat to voting rights seriously.
“She’s the right person and the right level of the administration given how much of a priority this is and how urgent these problems are,” said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.
Democrats earlier this year passed through the House the For The People Act, which would require states to offer mail-in ballots and a minimum of 15 days of early voting and calls for online and same-day voter registration. It would also establish independent commissions to draw congressional districts and make Election Day a national holiday for federal workers.
But the sweeping legislation, which some Republicans have suggested is unconstitutional, has garnered no GOP support. Even some Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), have said a more narrow, tailored voting rights bill would be preferable and more likely to pass the Senate.
Harris’s efforts are also expected to focus on passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, after a pair of moderate senators called on Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act earlier this year.
“Any pieces of legislation that are so vast, that cover so many issues certainly are going to bump up against the reality that there is going to be something that everybody is not going to like,” said Matthew Weil, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s elections project, who expects it will be “very difficult” for lawmakers to pass the voting rights bills.
While Harris served in the Senate more recently than Biden, it’s the president who has built a reputation for an ability to reach across the aisle and broker deals.
The White House official emphasized that Harris’s work will not be limited to engaging with lawmakers on passing voting rights legislation at the federal level.
Harris in a statement Tuesday said that she would engage with advocacy, private sector and community organizations to “help strengthen and uplift efforts on voting rights nationwide” at a time when various states are enacting voting restrictions.
Donna Brazile, former Democratic National Committee chairwoman and veteran political strategist, said that Harris would play a critical role not only in trying to advance bills in Congress but also working with voting rights groups, the private sector and governors to uphold the right to vote.
“There’s no question that the fundamental right to vote is under attack and assault in this country and it’s being led by those who refuse to declare Joe Biden as president of the United States,” Brazile said. “I think it’s important that she is leading this effort because of her own experience.”
The latest addition to Harris’s portfolio will also further elevate her profile, while Republicans are already targeting the vice president with attacks as they struggle to damage Biden’s standing with the public.
GOP lawmakers have hammered Harris for failing to visit the U.S.-Mexico border to address the number of migrants crossing into the country, even as the White House has stressed her focus is on root causes of migration.
Shortly after Biden announced Harris would lead the voting rights effort, Republicans sarcastically questioned if that meant the border crisis had been solved.
The political attacks reflect the bind Harris is in as she is asked to navigate politically fraught issues without clear solutions.
In tasking Harris with a myriad of important, challenging roles as vice president, including negotiations on Capitol Hill, Biden is treating her similarly to how he was handled by then-President Obama when he served as vice president.
“That’s the model he is used to playing,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “Someone who could take on beefier roles and play a role in helping the president persuade those on the Hill to put forward policies and get them across the finish line.”
Harris, who is the first woman, first Black person and first Indian American to serve as vice president, has already been a leading voice on the Biden administration’s work to advance gender and racial equity, and Biden’s decision Tuesday to tap her to lead the administration’s work to bolster voting rights puts her further at the center of the administration’s civil rights agenda.
She has been a key voice in promoting the administration’s infrastructure and economic rescue proposals, as well as urging more reluctant Americans to get the coronavirus vaccine. The White House announced Wednesday Harris would lead a “National Vaccination Tour” in the coming weeks.
Each of those tasks presents a challenge to Harris, strategists close to the White House said, because in most cases the final result is either out of her hands or will take time to be successful. Harris has acknowledged addressing root causes of migration will be a long-term project, and passage of policing reform or voting rights will ultimately depend on whether the Senate can pass legislation in a chamber that is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
Democrats also concede that the competing policy priorities that Harris and the administration in general are juggling present a real challenge. White House officials say that’s part of the job, noting that Biden and Harris need to handle multiple jobs at one time.
“There is certainly a risk that multitasking here with such incredibly different and complex issues will create a situation where none of them get dealt with fully and appropriately, but unfortunately the situation that Biden and Democrats are in right now they are going to need to work on multiple fronts because there is so much riding on their success,” said one Democratic strategist.
The strategist added that Harris could help mobilize voters and activists across the country to prepare for changes and roadblocks to voting laws ahead of the midterm elections, regardless of whether bills in Congress are passed.
“Harris taking on this role means that she can make sure the security of the voters and our votes as we approach the midterm elections, which are obviously going to be critical for the Biden administration agenda going forward,” the strategist said.