Essential Politics: Harris tries to work the room for Biden – Los Angeles Times

Vice President Kamala Harris opened a make-or-break week for the Biden administration’s congressional agenda with an afternoon reception Monday at her official residence, celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with members of the Hispanic Caucus.

It was a mix of pleasure and business. Lawmakers posted social media pictures from the lush grounds of the Naval Observatory as they noshed on deep-fried avocado bites and sipped peach iced tea. Harris gave Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) hot peppers from her garden while everyone sang to him for his birthday.

Harris talked about the long history of the Latino movement and renewed her commitment to passing an immigration bill, said Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona).

But the most pressing business involved the next big pieces of the Biden administration’s agenda and the fights in the Democratic Party that are threatening to wreck it. Congressional Democrats are threading a needle in hopes of passing a $1-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $3.5-trillion spending plan that addresses a litany of liberal priorities.

Good morning and welcome to Essential Politics, Kamala Harris edition. This week, I’ll look at Harris’ role in the administration’s late push to keep Democrats from jumping ship on their agenda and at her office’s latest plans to hone her public image.

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‘We may not get the whole enchilada’

Harris does not have a reputation as a major dealmaker on Capitol Hill. But this week, she is playing a key role in the administration’s full-court press, using the trappings of her office and whatever else it takes to hold together the fractious Democratic caucus.

“It was very much a message of the importance of these bills — what was in it for Latinos, not just men, but women and families,” Torres said, describing Harris’ message during the Monday reception.

“Let’s pass something that is meaningful to our communities, knowing that we may not get the whole enchilada,” Torres said, paraphrasing the vice president’s message.

“She talked kind of broadly to all of us about the importance of delivering on this agenda and that, oftentimes, our communities are left behind, and that wasn’t lost on her,” said Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-Redlands).

Aguilar said Harris pulled lawmakers aside, asking if they needed help making sure their priorities were addressed in the spending bill.

Harris held a similar event last week with the Black Caucus that was dominated by lawmakers expressing concerns over the administration’s response to an encampment of Haitian migrants in Del Rio, Texas.

Until now, the White House has relied on Harris to publicly sell its policies. She has held roundtables and other events designed to press the need for spending on free community college, water infrastructure and women’s healthcare, among other administration priorities.

The use of Harris’ time in such a way has made strategic sense — she brings excitement to some essential Democratic constituencies and has made it a priority to visit historically Black colleges, child-care centers and other venues that her white, male predecessors may not have considered.

Last week, for example, she visited a woman in Washington, D.C., who cares for her parents and her kids, in order to illustrate the conundrum of the “sandwich generation.” The administration’s spending plan would increase coverage of long-term care for the elderly and would cut child-care costs, among other measures.

The White House has generally limited Harris’ role in lobbying lawmakers because she spent only four years in the Senate, much of it as a partisan running for president or vice president, thereby limiting her ability to sway former colleagues.

But this week, the White House needs everybody.

Democrats have a bare majority in the Senate and only an eight-vote majority in the House, giving almost every lawmaker an outsize amount of leverage. There is a split between some centrists who oppose the $3.5-trillion spending bill — at least at its current size — and progressives who say they may withhold their votes on infrastructure if they don’t get the larger spending plan.

In addition to seeking to transform the country, Democrats are making a political argument. If Biden fails in passing his agenda, the party’s uphill battle to retain control of Congress in the 2022 elections gets harder. Moderates do not all agree with that argument, however; many believe they could get ousted from office if they raise taxes on high earners and corporations and spend big money on domestic programs.

The first test comes Thursday, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) plans to hold a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure plan.

It’s too early to say whether Harris’ voice will make a material difference. Some pivotal members of the Hispanic caucus, including moderate Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, were not at the vice president’s residence Monday. Aids say Harris has spoken with other potential holdouts and will continue to make calls this week.

While Biden, Pelosi and Sen. Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York are the most important players in pitching the Democratic strategy and negotiating with the competing camps within the party, it’s critical for Harris to be seen by Biden and his advisors as a team player.

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Is Harris closing the polling gap?

It’s no secret that Biden has been struggling in the polls amid the COVID-19 resurgence and the messy exit from Afghanistan. Earlier this month, I wrote about how that could, in a perverse way, help Harris by giving her a reprieve from the harsh spotlight.

Last week, we saw a rare poll from Gallup that showed Harris with a higher approval rating than Biden: 49% vs. 43%.

Should we believe it? Probably not, at least not yet. It’s best to wait to assess a few polls before proclaiming there has been movement. A single poll that differs from the rest is more often an outlier than a harbinger.

But Harris, who had recently been trending about 10 percentage points behind Biden, may be drawing closer to him. The Los Angeles Times average has her about 9 percentage points behind the president, and Real Clear Politics has her about 6.5 points back.

That’s not good news for either of them, however — both are below 50%.

The Harris team continues to work on her image. A White House official confirmed a pair of hirings, first reported by the Washington Post, of two veteran communications advisors — Lorraine Voles and Adam Frankel — to temporary posts. The White House would not say how long Voles and Frankel will be working on the vice president’s team.

Frankel worked for President Obama; Voles worked for Vice President Al Gore. Both helped Harris during the transition.

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The view from Washington

— Democrats are deeply divided over how to enact President Biden’s agenda, but they agree on one thing: No one comes close to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s acumen in muscling bills through the House, write Jennifer Haberkorn and Janet Hook.

— Biden on Friday attempted to simultaneously disavow and accept responsibility for one of the ugliest images of his presidency: desperate Haitians getting wrangled by Border Patrol agents on horseback, write Noah Bierman and Hook.

— Erin B. Logan reports that Biden on Monday received a COVID-19 booster shot as part of a broader, public push to promote vaccinations in the hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. At least 400,000 people in the United States have received COVID-19 booster shots since the extra injections were authorized last week.

Gen. Mark A. Milley on Tuesday defended controversial calls with his Chinese counterparts near the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, saying the conversations were part of his responsibility to prevent a potentially deadly misunderstanding between two superpowers, Chris Megerian reports. Milley also testified that the American war in Afghanistan ended in “strategic failure,” a grim conclusion that acknowledged a long series of mistakes and miscalculations by the Pentagon’s leaders.

— Republican senators blocked a bill Monday night to keep the government operating and allow federal borrowing, but Democrats aiming to avert a shutdown are likely to try again.

The view from California

— Concerns over the constitutionality of how California law handles vacant U.S. Senate seats will result in a potentially confusing one-time solution next year: side-by-side races, on both the statewide primary and general election ballots, for the same job, writes John Myers.

— Also from Myers: California’s pandemic-inspired move toward mailing a ballot to every registered, active voter will become a permanent part of the state’s political landscape after Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 37 on Monday.

— California outlawed the all-white-male boardroom. That move is reshaping corporate America, writes Evan Halper.

— It’s official: Dakota Smith reports that U.S. Rep. Karen Bass launched her campaign for Los Angeles mayor on Monday, telling Angelenos she’s in the race with her “whole heart” and ready to tackle the city’s homelessness epidemic.

— There are some drastic ideas to overhaul California’s recall. Be careful, one expert tells columnist Mark Z. Barabak.