Vice President Harris new to wielding Senate gavel in challenging time

Harris had only served in Senate minority

Kamala Harris bumps fists with Joe Biden after being sworn in as vice president of the United States during the inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (REUTERS)
Kamala Harris bumps fists with Joe Biden after being sworn in as vice president of the United States during the inauguration on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol. (REUTERS)
Posted January 20, 2021 at 7:26pm

When Vice President Kamala Harris swore in three new Democratic senators Wednesday afternoon, it was the first time she had presided over the chamber. And it came at a time when she will provide Democrats the edge with her tiebreaking vote.

Harris’ ascent to the vice presidency, combined with the swearing-in of her appointed Senate replacement, Alex Padilla of California, and newly elected Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, made New York’s Charles E. Schumer the Senate majority leader.

Like President Joe Biden when he was vice president, Harris will have a variety of largely ceremonial functions as president of the Senate, but she may also find herself doing something Biden never did.

The 50-50 party split in the Senate puts her in a somewhat similar position to her most recent predecessor, Mike Pence, who was on the West Front of the Capitol for Wednesday’s inaugural ceremony. He cast 13 tiebreaking votes over his four-year term, in part because of recent changes in Senate rules on nominations.

Harris’ new tiebreaking power also led to Vermont Democrat Patrick J. Leahy resuming the position of Senate president pro tempore, with the constitutional role to fulfill the Senate duties of the vice president when she is not in the Capitol.

In their opening floor statements following Leahy’s election, which came by unanimous consent, both Schumer and Republican leader Mitch McConnell congratulated Biden and Harris and praised the celebration of democracy that took place Wednesday. But neither spoke to the details of the effort to formally organize the Senate, which is the most pressing piece of business.

Schumer and McConnell continue to iron out the terms of the amount of power to be provided the minority party. Any agreement will likely echo the 2001 deal that resulted from the last time the Senate was tied: Democrats will chair committees and Schumer will have control of the floor, but there will be equal membership on committees.

“This Senate will legislate. It will be active, responsive, energetic and bold. And to my Republican colleagues, when and where we can, the Democratic majority will strive to make this important work bipartisan,” Schumer said on the floor.

“Our country deserves for both sides, both parties, to find common ground for the common good everywhere that we can and disagree respectfully where we must,” McConnell said in his first speech since returning to minority leader status. “Last fall, the American people chose to elect a narrowly divided House of Representatives, a 50-50 Senate and a president who promised unity.”

For those looking for signs of such bipartisanship, there was one Wednesday. The chamber, even without a formal organizing resolution, confirmed Biden’s nominee to be director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.

The 84-10 vote came after a brief hiccup when Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., placed a hold on the nomination until he received a response regarding comments Haines made during her confirmation hearing Tuesday. 

Haines, who previously served as deputy director of the CIA in the Obama administration, said in an answer to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., that she would accept the findings of an internal agency review that called for accountability reviews to be expanded to include systemic failures within the agency and hold individuals responsible for breaking rules. 

Cotton said he wanted Haines to clarify whether she intended to apply the accountability retroactively and hold former officials accountable or if she intended to apply them in the future. 

Haines reassured Cotton that she intended to apply the recommendations in the future and not punish former officials, according to CNN, and with that assurance, the Arkansas Republican withdrew his objection, paving the way for the Senate vote.

Senatorial courtesy

Harris, who resigned from the chamber Monday, joined the Senate in 2017, spending the entirety of her tenure there in the minority party.

Her rise to vice president means that both of the Capitol’s highest constitutional officers are women from California, with Harris joining Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California’s senior senator, recognized that Wednesday.

“Today there are 24 women in the Senate and 122 in the House — a far cry from the two women in the Senate when I arrived in 1992,” she said in a statement. “Women serve as top Cabinet officials and Supreme Court justices. And now we have both a woman Vice President and a woman Speaker — both from California.”

Harris was sworn in shortly before noon Wednesday by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whom Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., noted was the first Latina on the nation’s highest court.

“We celebrate a new president, Joe Biden, who vows to restore the soul of America and cross the river of our divides to a higher plain,” Klobuchar said during the inaugural ceremony. “And we celebrate our first African American, first Asian American and first woman vice president, Kamala Harris, who stands on the shoulders of so many on this platform who have forged the way to this day,” added Klobuchar, who as the top Democrat on the Senate Rules and Administration Committee also led the caucus on the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

During an exchange of gifts in the Capitol Rotunda that followed the inaugural ceremony, McConnell took a light-hearted dig at the House in pointing out the new White House’s senatorial credentials.

“On behalf of the Senate, with all due respect to our distinguished speaker and our colleagues from the House, I have to note not only did we just swear in a son and daughter of the Senate … but indeed these former senators skipped the House altogether,” the Kentucky Republican said.

Gopal Ratnam contributed to this report.