Harris highlights stakes of election in Barrett hearings

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Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., arrives on Capitol Hill for the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Unable to block President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Sen. Kamala Harris used three days of confirmation hearings this week to remind voters of the stakes of the Nov. 3 election and how Democratic nominee Joe Biden would govern differently if he were in the White House.

The Senate Judiciary Committee's consideration of Judge Amy Coney Barrett held extra weight for Harris, a California senator who is both a committee member and Biden's running mate. Known for her tough questioning of Trump's nominees, Harris took a lower key approach and avoided sparring matches with Republicans. Her messaging was muted in part because she appeared via video conference from her office, not the Senate hearing room, due to coronavirus concerns.

Her questioning reflected a sense among Democrats that there was little to be done to prevent Barrett's elevation to the court. She focused on core elements of Biden's campaign, such as protecting health care and addressing climate change, while framing the speedy confirmation process as an inappropriate use of power.

“These proceedings, I believe, lack legitimacy in the eyes of the people of our country," she said to close out her remarks on Wednesday.

Harris chose to attend from her office after two Republicans on the committee tested positive for the coronavirus in connection with the Rose Garden event to announce Barrett's nomination. At least 11 people got sick from the event. The committee chairman, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., ignored demands from Harris and two other Democrats to test everyone before allowing them in the hearing room.

The virus also disrupted her plans to return to campaigning on Thursday, after two people associated with the campaign tested positive for COVID-19. Harris didn't have direct contact with the two, but suspended travel through Sunday.

Harris and Biden argue that the Supreme Court seat left vacant after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg should not be filled until after the winner of the presidential election is known. They also are emphasizing the court's upcoming decision on the fate of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare.”

The Senate hearing represented an opportunity for Harris to elevate a message that could motivate the Democratic base, including on voting rights and climate change, without giving Republicans anything to rile up their supporters. She brought up abortion rights but did not make it a centerpiece of her questioning.

Republicans “see a political benefit to this theater,” said Nathan Barankin, Harris’ former Senate chief of staff. “Democrats are wise not to play into their hand.”

Republicans took note of the disciplined approach by Harris and the Democrats.

“They have conceded the nomination to maximize their ability to win the election," said Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist working to support Barrett's nomination.

Harris, he argued, was a nonfactor.

“She walked into the hearing as a first among peers and she left as kind of forgotten in the middle," he said.

But Democrats were thrilled by her closing line of questioning in particular, when Harris delivered the rapid questions and quips that have created memorable moments in hearings past.

“Are you saying you do not agree with the fact?" she said after asking Barrett whether she agreed with a 2013 opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts in which he wrote “voting discrimination still exists." Barrett said she would not comment on “whether an opinion is right or wrong or endorse that proposition."

Later, Barrett declined to weigh in on a question about whether climate change is happening, calling it a “very contentious matter of public debate."

“You've made your point clear that you believe that this is a debatable point," Harris, a former prosecutor, shot back.

Some Republican senators were eager to focus on Harris, whom Trump has tried to tie to the “radical left" as he struggles to land effective attacks against Biden. During opening statements on the final day, Graham twice singled out Harris' remarks from the day before.

“Sen. Harris, who I respect, suggested you were not candid," he said. “Judge Barrett, I couldn't disagree more."

GOP Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, who was next in line for questioning after Harris on Wednesday, asked Barrett a series of questions meant to rebut Harris. In answering them, Barrett said she was not a racist, did not always support corporations over people and supports science. Kennedy then began criticizing Harris' record as a prosecutor and her home state of California, a favorite target of Republicans.

Karen Finney, a Democratic strategist who ran communications for Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine in 2016, noted the circumstances of Barrett's nomination are far different from those of now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, and that Harris appropriately responded to the moment.

“She is calibrating to what the situation calls for," Finney said. On the substance, "I certainly think she was quite firm and intentional in pressing specific points."