More than six months ago, Vice President Kamala Harris embraced a new mission: to lead the administration’s push for federal voting rights legislation.
It was a chance to make her mark on a hugely important issue. And it took on added importance as her tenure turned bumpy over the summer. She dove into it.
For months, she helped craft political coalitions with civil rights leaders, built outside pressure on Congress and engaged privately with lawmakers. She met with Black leaders, helped create a list of actions that federal agencies could take to promote voter engagement and, more recently, added a larger media profile, with a high clip of national interviews. She spoke at the anniversary event for the Jan. 6 insurrection alongside President Joe Biden and then accompanied him to Georgia for a speech this past week to make a last public plea to pass new protections for voting.
On Friday, her work — and that of the administration, as a whole — hit a brick wall, as two moderate Senate Democrats said they would not support weakening the rules of the chamber to pass the party’s two election reform priorities. It’s left Harris in a now familiar place: stymied and with an uncertain path forward.
Harris’ aides and advisers say she’s unbowed by the setback. They view her more aggressive posture and increasingly public persona as an implicit sign that she’s solidified her standing in the White House. Allies argue she's finally getting a chance to succeed after prior misuse.
“When you're vice president, you really can't get out front of the White House," said Bakari Sellers, a friend of the vice president’s and one of her most vocal supporters. "It's tough. But with the president actually being forceful in nature about and not fence-sitting about his position on the filibuster on this issue, it gives her the tools necessary to be successful and that's the only concern I've ever raised. You want to make sure that she's not being handicapped."
Still, the failure — for now — to move voting rights legislation raises questions about how effective Harris’ push actually was. One person familiar with the administration’s thinking argued that substantial progress had been made even in the absence of legislation. “If you think about the beginning of this year, there were very few Senate Democrats who supported doing this on the filibuster. Right? Today it's basically two people who don't. That is a significant shift,” the person said.
The expectation going forward is that Harris and the administration will keep pushing for legislative progress in addition to meeting with key stakeholders. A White House official said Harris’ team is formulating plans on what next steps look like and that both public and private engagements for Harris are being discussed.
When asked on Friday what the next step on voting rights would be, Harris told reporters, “Well, we keep fighting. We are committed to seeing this through however long it takes and whatever it takes." She noted that she had, just today, “extensive meetings and discussions about how we can see this through.”
The rise of voting rights to the top of the administration’s agenda comes at a time of transition for her office, with a batch of aides leaving and new ones coming in. Privately, there had been disagreements among the staff over how big a public presence the vice president could have had in the early months, with some aides fearing that Harris’ low profile allowed a narrative to form around her that she was adrift and struggling with her portfolio items, chief among them addressing the migrant flow from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America.
Her recent activity has heartened activists both in and outside of Washington, D.C., many of whom felt President Joe Biden had not been sufficiently focusing on the issue of voting rights as he prioritized a bipartisan infrastructure law and social and climate spending bill.
“I have been very clear about making the distinction. I don't have anything negative to say about VP Harris, I think this has to fall on Biden's lap, he's the president. All my conversations with her: I think she's been very clear [that] she saw this as a core and important issue,” said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, who, despite being based in Atlanta, chose not to attend the Biden-Harris speech there earlier this week. “And so, I don't let Biden off the hook on this. Because one, isn't Biden the one that came to the table with the Senate experience, four decades of being in the Senate?”
But Harris’ elevated role also thrust her into a legislative initiative that is seemingly going nowhere. During an interview on Thursday, she made an impassioned plea for voting rights legislation, pointing the blame at both Republicans and members of her own party for standing in the way of changing the Senate rules to get election reform passed by simple-majority vote.
“I don't think anyone should be absolved from the responsibility of preserving and protecting our democracy, especially when they took an oath to protect and defend our Constitution,” she said when asked specifically if Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) were responsible for the lack of movement on voting rights.
The direct call out of the two moderate Democrats did not veer far from the rhetoric that the White House itself has been deploying. But it turned heads nonetheless, coming hours before the Senate was set to consider changing its rules to pass voting rights reforms. When Biden went to talk to the Senate Democratic caucus about the filibuster reform push, he went alone. And when he met with Manchin and Sinema on Thursday night after they each reiterated they weren’t budging, Harris didn’t attend the meeting.
White House aides cautioned against reading into Harris’ absence, noting Biden’s standing relationships with the two senators over the last year of meetings and negotiations over his other priorities. They said the fact that the president empowered Harris to lead on voting rights in the first place is evidence that he valued both it and her. “[Biden and Harris] see eye-to-eye on voting rights,” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said in an email, something Harris’ team has reiterated.
“They showed that they are a team right there. There [aren’t] degrees of separation,” said Melanie Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation. “You get one president at a time. [It’s important it’s seen] as one administration. Whatever is happening, her role in it is also elevated in that."
Still, Harris’ last few weeks on the voting rights front have become, to a degree, a microcosm of her stint as vice president: one defined by sharp moments, mishaps, public drama, private work and a touch of bad political luck.
While there is some concern in Harrisworld that she could get some blame from the press if voting rights legislation ultimately fails to get through the Senate, it isn’t universally shared. Allies point out that the larger civil rights community is pleased with Harris’ work and argue that the issue isn’t a lack of effort but the intractability from moderate Democrats on filibuster reform alongside zero Republican support. This time, the thinking goes, others will take the fall.
“She’s done the work,” Sellers said. “This [is] on Manchin and Sinema and their intellectual dishonesty about our country’s history.”
Laura Barrón-López contributed to this report.