Kamala Harris Gets Chance to Quiz Barrett Today—With Proper Caution

Kamala Harris returned to the Senate Judiciary Committee this week for a closely watched Supreme Court confirmation hearing, working to balance her instinct for a newsmaking cross-examination of the nominee with the Biden campaign’s need to maintain its steady lead.

Harris is one of the most junior members of the committee, but also a Democratic Party standard-bearer as the vice- presidential nominee. She is largely leaving the campaign trail just three weeks from Election Day for what will probably be a futile battle to stop Republicans from confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

The former prosecutor elevated her national platform at the start of President Donald Trump’s term with her questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and Attorney General William Barr, propelling her unsuccessful run for the Democratic presidential nomination. But now as Joe Biden’s No. 2, Harris may be inclined to tamp down some of her prosecutorial instincts, wary of alienating voters or endangering the risk-averse Biden campaign’s polling lead, according to people familiar with her planning for the hearing.

She, like some other Democrats, is also participating in the hearing remotely, after several committee members tested positive for the coronavirus last week. That would make it more difficult for her to have any breakout moments, like the viral clips from past exchanges — in particular, her questioning of Kavanaugh on abortion rights when she asked him if he could point to any laws that “give the government the power to make decisions about the male body.”

“I expect that Senator Harris will complete and fulfill her responsibilities as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and deliver capable and focused questioning of Judge Barrett while she is also engaged in an urgent and important campaign that, as my friend and predecessor Joe Biden says, is a battle for the soul of our nation,” Delaware Senator Chris Coons, a close Biden ally, said in an interview.

Harris isn’t the only committee member with an election at stake. The chairman, Lindsey Graham, and fellow Republican members Thom Tillis, Joni Ernst and John Cornyn all are in re-election battles. Graham’s Democratic opponent, Jaime Harrison, reported raising $57 million in the third quarter, more than any Senate candidate in that time frame in U.S. history.

But for Harris, the hearing comes less than a week after her debate with Vice President Mike Pence, a performance cheered by Democrats, and her biggest television audience since the Democratic National Convention in August.

The hearing began Monday with opening statements, which will be followed by two days of questions, but even Graham acknowledged none of the senators’ rhetoric will likely change any minds, with Democrats voting no and Republicans voting to confirm Barrett.

The Biden campaign said Harris would be fully engaged in the hearings while continuing to be active on the campaign trail.

“We will talk to voters any which way we can,” Liz Allen, Harris’s campaign communications director, said after the debate last week, adding, “We can talk to voters virtually, in person, in writing.”

But while the campaign and her Senate office are legally not allowed to coordinate on strategy and tactics, Democrats across the board are united in their messaging approach.

As Monday’s opening statements showed, they will focus the hearings on policies — particularly health care — more than Coney Barrett’s personal life or her religious faith. In fact, they are hoping to avoid the fireworks that characterized Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing, which centered around a sexual assault allegation from his high-school years. Instead, the questions will focus on the policy implications of adding Coney Barrett to the high court.

“This nominee said she wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act,” Biden told reporters on Monday. “The president wants to get rid of the Affordable Care Act. Let’s keep our eye on the ball.”

Just a week after Election Day, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on a case that could gut the Affordable Care Act and take away protections for people with pre-existing conditions. Democrats plan to push Coney Barrett on the issue, as she has criticized past court rulings upholding the law known as Obamacare.

Harris, a junior committee member, will be one of the last senators to question the court nominee, and along with most Senate Democrats, she has not spoken or met with Coney Barrett since her nomination. A person familiar with her preparations for the hearing said Harris’s questions will likely center on the Obamacare case and she will seek to bring in personal stories about Americans helped by the health care law, as she did in opening statements on Monday. The person also said abortion rights are another possible line of questioning, but she’ll adapt based on what the more senior senators ask before her.

“By replacing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with someone who will undo her legacy, President Trump is attempting to roll back Americans’ rights for decades to come,” Harris said in her opening statement Monday. “Every American must understand that with this nomination, equal justice under law is at stake. Our voting rights are at stake. Workers’ rights are at stake. Consumer rights are at stake. The right to a safe and legal abortion is at stake.”

— With assistance by Laura Litvan

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