With the Senate no longer split 50-50, will Harris have a freer hand?

Vice President Kamala Harris addressing at Capitol Hill to mark the first anniversary of Capitol Hill riots on Thursday, January 6, 2022. Photo : twitter.com/VP

WASHINGTON – To break one tie vote, Vice President Harris was pulled out of a dinner she was hosting, her motorcade whisking her down Massachusetts Avenue well after business hours. Another time, she was several states away from D.C. when she learned her vote was needed, and hopped a quick flight back before dashing from the steps of Air Force Two to the U.S. Capitol.

With the Senate knotted at 50-50 during the first two years of Harris’s tenure, the vice president has broken 26 ties, including key votes that nudged along or cemented defining policies of the Biden administration. The tiebreaking duties could ease soon, however, now that Democrats grew their advantage in the upper chamber to a still-narrow 51-49 edge in last month’s midterms.

That advantage is expected mostly to hold despite the announcement by Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema that she is becoming an independent; Sinema has signaled she is still likely to vote mostly with the Democrats. And that could mean fewer scheduling gymnastics for Harris and a freer hand to chart her own course, literally and figuratively.

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On paper, the two years Harris has spent as a tiebreaker have made her one of history’s most consequential vice presidents, in a role that has often been more ceremonial than substantive. Each time Harris voted, she and the administration won, as President Biden rarely tires of pointing out.

But people close to the vice president say being the chief tiebreaker has come at a cost, tethering Harris to the U.S. Capitol when she could be building her brand and touting successes across the country.

On Aug. 7, for example, she was the deciding vote on the Inflation Reduction Act. Earlier in her tenure, she voted on a resolution that cleared the way for the American Rescue Plan.

Biden has vowed to build an administration that looks like America, and several appointments filled by minorities have been confirmed by Harris’s vote. She also presided over several highly resonant votes that were not ties, like the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court justice and the vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

While most bills require 60 votes in the Senate to break a filibuster, some budget-related, judicial and procedural and other votes require only a simple majority.

Harris, who unsuccessfully sought the presidency three years ago, is widely believed to have her sights still set on the nation’s highest office. And there are few better launchpads than her current job – 15 former vice presidents have gone on to become president, including the current occupant of the White House.

But following a historic but uneven first year, many in the Democratic establishment question if Harris has done enough to make the case that she should be her party’s next standard-bearer. Skeptics question her performance as a communicator, but some supporters say the constraints on her schedule should not be minimized.

Constitutionally, the vice presidency is one of the only jobs that spans two branches of government. The vice president is also the president of the Senate, charged with casting the deciding ballot if there’s a tie. For most of history, the tiebreaking part of the job has been more civics class trivia than everyday reality, because one party held a decisive majority. When Joe Biden was vice president, for example, he never broke a single tie.

But for Harris, breaking ties has become intertwined with her political calculus and what supporters see as a familiar tension: doing all she can to support the administration in the present while cultivating her prospects for the future.

The latter, her aides say, means getting outside the Beltway during an administration that has already faced significant travel-related hurdles. Harris took office in the midst of a global pandemic, making frequent travel and large gatherings rare.

Harris’s supporters have long contended that she would benefit from more occasions when she can showcase the administration’s work.

“The main thing is I wish she was out there more – more visible,” said J.A. Moore, a South Carolina legislator who endorsed Harris’s run for president. “It’s the visibility piece – people want to see her out more. It speaks to the fact that they want to see that representation. They want to see more of her face and her connection with what the administration is doing.”

The vice president’s office declined to comment on the record and did not make Harris available. Her aides have stressed that she has tried to nimbly juggle her role as tiebreaker with the other duties of the vice president, including numerous trips at home and abroad.

The public life of the vice president is a highly choreographed one, with Secret Service agents and political aides evaluating on-site security flaws and camera angles months in advance of a Harris visit. Congress’s schedule can be more hectic, shaped by shifting political winds, unexpected amendments and last-minute surprises.

To help Harris navigate those dueling landscapes, a small contingent of her staff has been dedicated to questions that are more common for people who work for Senate leaders: What is the current vote count? Which senator is out of town, attending a funeral or a wedding? When will the final vote be cast?

In October, for example, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) was briefly hospitalized. In July, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) were quarantined after contracting the coronavirus, leaving them unable to vote in the midst of negotiations over an economic package.

Members of Harris’s staff have listened-in to Senate leadership calls and stayed in contact with aides to understand what bills are coming up for a vote, then tried to bake those educated guesses into Harris’s schedule.

Harris staffers tried to build “floating holds” into her calendar weeks in advance – times when a Senate vote could happen, so Harris needed to limit travel.

“There was a whole lot of – in real time – figuring out who was absent and who was not,” said one staffer, who declined to speak on the record about a strategic matter. “It was a lot of just dialing, trying to figure out where people were.”

Harris’s staffers became intimately acquainted with the vagaries of the Senate schedule and with the limitations of Air Force Two. Votes rarely happened on Mondays and Fridays, so it was usually safer for Harris to travel on those days. Many late Senate votes unfolded on Wednesday nights.

A planned Senate vote in the evening meant the vice president could travel, as long as she stayed east of the Mississippi River and was back inside the Beltway by a certain time.

And when Harris was needed, her aides scrambled to get her to the Senate chamber from wherever she was.

“There were times where she was just home,” the aide said. “There were times where she was in briefings late at night and we needed to know whether we had to get someone into the [secure conference room]. Sometimes we had to pull her from the Oval Office.”

On Wednesday, Schumer told the Associated Press that his caucus “has been deeply grateful” for Harris’s “constant schedule-juggling.”

“It’s part of her job. But I think she’s done a lot of other good things,” the majority leader said. “And now she’s going to have a little more time to do those things, because the need for her to be here will be less.”

Although Harris has so far outpaced her predecessors in ties broken, she still has a few votes to go before she takes the all-time lead. John C. Calhoun, who was vice president under Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams, broke 31 ties.

But his record came over the course of eight years. Though mathematically less likely, Harris could still be called on to break ties during the remainder of Biden’s term.

In comments earlier this year to the Democratic National Committee, Harris hinted at what she has accomplished by breaking Senate ties, but also, in a chamber that requires 60 votes to pass most legislation, what still remains out of reach.

“In our first year in office, some historians here may know, I actually broke John Adams’s record of casting the most tiebreaking votes in a single term,” she said. But she added, “I cannot wait to cast the deciding vote to break the filibuster on voting rights and reproductive rights.”

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