Vice President Kamala Harris was in the middle of an Oval Office meeting last Thursday when, before her turn to speak had come, a staffer delivered a note calling her to Capitol Hill.
“She got up and left,” said one person who was in the room for the untimely departure. “She had a job to do up in the Senate.”
But Harris never got to say her piece in that Oval meeting on an issue that could be the administration’s next big project and one where she could play a major role: infrastructure, the kind of portfolio one might expect a vice president to own.
Harris has expressed some reluctance to be the 51st member of the Democratic Senate majority, instead hoping the upper chamber operates in a bipartisan matter. In her less than two months in office, she’s already cast three tie-breaking votes, including two that took place near dawn one day. She took her motorcade to the Capitol another time to be on standby for a vote but was ultimately not needed as the deciding factor.
That infrastructure meeting reflects how her role at the Capitol could stand in conflict with time spent honing her skills elsewhere as second in line to the President.
Thus far, Harris has not been tasked with a key portfolio issue distinct from President Joe Biden, who by this point in his vice presidency in 2009 was key in corralling votes for the Recovery Act and overseeing its implementation on his own.
Harris instead has wrapped herself around Biden’s singular legislative focus as his full partner, promoting the American Rescue Plan in public and behind the scenes, while also carving out interest areas of her own from foreign policy to small businesses.
Allies of Harris argue it’s still early for her to have her own portfolio since the administration’s focus has squarely been squarely on the pandemic, but they are watching closely to see what comes next.
“She is not yet playing the same role that Biden played when he was vice president,” said Washington, DC, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. “If I were he, I would not know how to carve out a space for her just yet. Remember the virus and getting that bill through is essentially the only thing he’s really focused on.”
Seven weeks into the job, Harris is still settling into her new role – literally as well as figuratively. Her living situation, for example, remains a work in progress.
Harris and second gentleman Doug Emhoff continue to reside on the upper floor of Blair House while renovations are underway at their permanent residence, the Naval Observatory, where she dropped by last week to check on the progress. The two have been easy guests at Blair House, a source says, even recently asking residence staff for a weekend alone so they could cook and fend for themselves.
The vice president’s guidebook in the early days has included building that working relationship with her new boss. Biden and his White House have been deliberate about including her in almost every single one of his public-facing events to showcase their partnership.
She spends a good portion of each day, around four to five hours, with Biden and their team behind closed doors, according to White House sources. Harris was in the Situation Room during his recent decision to order an airstrike in Syria, for example. The two carve out one-on-one time for lunch together once a week, and he has dropped by her office down the hall from time to time.
“The chemistry between the two of them is great,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who’s a key supporter of the President. “There seems to be the right chemistry, and he expresses the fact that he has faith and confidence in her.”
Learning on the job is no small thing for the second-in-command to this particular President, who is taking a very strong hands-on approach to his most important projects. Biden himself strategized the passage of the stimulus package and personally worked the most critical senators.
“In this early period, you’re going to see some fairly intense personal engagement from the President,” said Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who’s a close friend of the President. “Vice President Harris will soon be taking and leading meetings that engage with the Hill and engage with foreign leaders.”
Passing Covid relief bill
So far, Harris’ first major task has mirrored the priority of the White House to pass the $1.9 trillion covid relief package with the vice president promoting it in public and behind the scenes. White House officials have said Harris spoke with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in the buildup to the bill’s passage, but much of her work also focused on building support among mayors, local officials and business leaders.
Harris was on hand for Biden’s sit-downs with Republicans and Democrats at the White House and held her own conversations with lawmakers, aides said. During one of her trips to cast a tie-breaking vote in the Senate, she met with Republican senators in her Capitol Hill office to discuss the bill, an aide said.
Sen. Mark Warner described Harris’ role as one of the “formulaters” of the relief package and an active participant in the meetings dedicated to tailoring the bill.
“She heard us, but also realized that, you know, this is one of those packages where there was no room for error,” the Virginia Democrat said of his conversations with Harris. “She has personal friendships with so many, such as many of us on the Democratic side, so I think she was absolutely critical.”
Harris did a number of local and national interviews to sell the package, but one of those appearances with a West Virginia television station rankled the state’s conservative Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who received a call from the White House after publicly expressing his frustration with the interview.
Harris also became a focal point for progressives who wanted her to overturn the parliamentarian’s ruling on the $15 minimum wage, an act the White House was quick to say she would not pursue.
“It’s about the people. People are suffering, and we need to step up and do the right thing,” said Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who was among those pushing for Harris to overrule the parliamentarian and wants to see an end to the filibuster.
From the White House, Harris held virtual meetings with key constituency groups to help sell the package, including a virtual summit with female advocacy groups to promote the benefits of the bill. Allies say this type of outreach is central to the success of major administration initiatives.
“Passing a piece of legislation requires you to do a lot of different things. Some of it is, yes, talking to members on Capitol Hill,” said Tina Tchen, a veteran of the Obama administration who now serves as president and CEO of TIME’S UP Now. “But you have to talk to those people in their states, in their congressional districts, about how the debate in Washington will affect their lives.”
In television interviews and public stops, Harris has also been a key messenger in the administration’s efforts to ease hesitancy about vaccines, particularly among communities of color.
White House officials have said the President and vice president plan to spend time promoting the Covid relief package after its passage. While the President has made a handful of trips since taking office, Harris has stayed close to Washington, but she’s expected to begin traveling domestically in the coming weeks, an official said.
Foreign policy agenda
Those close to Harris say foreign policy and national security are key areas she wants to develop in her portfolio, and she’s taken steps to beef up her experience since taking office.
When Biden ordered the airstrike in Syria last month, Harris was on hand in the Situation Room and “heavily engaged” in the discussions, a White House official said, weighing in on the administration’s first known military action.
With international trips on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, Harris has started to build her own relationships with foreign leaders from the halls of the White House. She’s held solo calls with more than half a dozen foreign leaders, including Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This week, she delivered remarks to the European Parliament to mark International Women’s Day, and she’s expected to deliver her first United Nations address as vice president next week. These appearances are all done virtually but set her up to be a key emissary for the administration on the international stage.
Harris also has established a regular lunch with Secretary of State Tony Blinken, sit-downs that could serve a dual purpose of staying up to date on the administration’s international strategy and gaining insight into her new boss from a man who has served as one of his longest advisers. The lunch is similar to one Biden had as vice president with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And she regularly speaks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, aides say.
Nearly every day, Biden and Harris together receive the president’s daily brief, the intelligence community’s top-secret rundown of the most pressing intelligence and security threats. It’s a realm Harris has some experience in, having served on the Senate Intelligence Committee for four years as a senator from California.
Warner, who served on the Intelligence Committee with Harris, said he’s had conversations with her on one of his major interests around emerging technology competition in China.
“She’s seen from our committee the work we’ve done,” Warner told CNN. Harris has asked him about legislation that would create a “technology alliance” between the US and European allies but also with other global allies like in Asia for agreements on 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing and more.
“I think she’s interested in that subject,” he said. Warner added that because of Harris’ comfort with technology and its role in a global world, how to build a multinational coalition to compete with China and other authoritarian regimes is something he would like to see her take up and he has expressed that to her.
“I think that’s going to be one of the most defining issues of our time,” he said.
Small business boost
Another area Harris has keyed in on is the White House’s effort to revitalize small businesses damaged by the pandemic. Aides say she zeroed in on helping the smallest of small businesses and businesses of color get enough attention from the federal government.
Publicly, Harris has boosted the interests of small businesses through a range of events, like a meeting with the Black Chambers of Commerce and touring a woman-owned small business selling yarn and fiber in Virginia, calling it the “fabric of the community.”
Behind the scenes, administration officials say, the vice president met with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen last week for a full briefing on their work for the Community Development Financial Institutions and Minority Depository Institutions programs. One official said the pair will look for ongoing ways to amplify both programs – which will help minority-owned businesses – together.
This interest has a through line to Harris’ works as a senator. Those familiar said Harris was “very active” in the effort to secure $12 billion for the programs in the December Covid relief package.
Harris made a solo call recently to the CEOs of some major lenders, officials said, to encourage them to deliver what American businesses need through the Paycheck Protection Program.
In one meeting on the changes to that program with Bharat Ramamurti, deputy director of the National Economic Council, Harris gave a “strong steer” for the program to prioritize the smallest businesses, including allowing small businesses that have defaulted on student loans to have access to the funds, a reflection of her shaping policy.
“She gave a strong steer in that meeting with the NEC that this is the type of thing we really need to prioritize, really the type of thing that we need to be doing and amplifying at the level of the President and her,” one official said.
Aides called it a direct extension of her work in the Senate. Harris introduced a bill last year with Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, that would have provided federal support to small neighborhood businesses during the pandemic.
Her work on small businesses all ties back to the administration’s overarching goal of getting the pandemic under control and providing relief to a battered economy, one where allies say she’s been a key player.
“Vice President Harris is being what she needs to be, which is a really good partner, a really good additional voice out there,” Tchen said. “The rest of it will come over time.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.