Big stage, big risks for Harris at judge's confirmation hearing

Ms Kamala Harris has to strike a balance between being on the attack and coming across as largely appealing.
Ms Kamala Harris has to strike a balance between being on the attack and coming across as largely appealing.

WASHINGTON • When the US judiciary committee considers the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Ms Kamala Harris will take on an outsize role in the proceedings as the Democratic Party's vice-presidential nominee. Almost as many eyes will be on her as on Ms Barrett.

Despite being the lowest-ranking Democrat on the panel, Ms Harris' seat there will provide her a prominent platform to frame the stakes of Ms Barrett's nomination for voters and amplify the message that Mr Joe Biden, the party standard-bearer, is pressing as Nov 3 looms.

But it will also require her to strike a delicate balance - one that she has been forced to calibrate ever since she joined Mr Biden on the Democratic ticket - between being on the attack and coming across as sincere and broadly appealing.

Colleagues say Ms Harris' capable turn at the debate last week against Vice-President Mike Pence made it clear she will have done her homework and be unafraid to challenge Ms Barrett, arguing that she poses a grave threat to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and abortion rights.

"Kamala Harris has already shown herself to be well grounded and well prepared, but also able to ask pointed questions," said Democratic Senator Chris Coons, a fellow member of the panel. "She will help make clear to the American people the enormous consequences of Judge Barrett being confirmed to the Supreme Court."

Ms Harris has said she will attend the hearings from her Senate office, reinforcing the Democratic argument that Republicans are acting irresponsibly in pushing forward with the proceedings even as Covid-19 has infected members of the committee.

Still, Republicans expect Ms Harris to be among the most outspoken against the nomination, given her prominent political role and their memory of her participation at other Senate confirmation battles.

In 2018, just seconds into the Supreme Court confirmation hearing of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Ms Harris had interrupted Senator Chuck Grassley, then the chairman of the judiciary committee, with a sharp demand to be recognised.

"We cannot move forward, Mr Chairman, with this hearing," she insisted after he tried repeatedly to silence her. Mr Kavanaugh went on to be confirmed after a searing fight featuring sharp questioning by the California senator.

Two years on, after Ms Harris' selection by Mr Biden, President Donald Trump accused her of being "extraordinarily nasty" to Mr Kavanaugh in her questioning.

Democrats say the criticism reflects the Republicans' concern about the former prosecutor's abilities when grilling witnesses.

"I think this is an opportunity for her because she is just so great as a questioner and as a force for justice," said Senator Richard Blumenthal, another Democrat on the panel.

In the Kavanaugh hearings, Ms Harris quizzed the nominee on various topics such as abortion rights and Mr Trump's comment about a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that there was "blame on both sides".

"Do you, sir, believe there was blame on both sides?" she asked with the accusatory style of a prosecutor. Mr Kavanaugh refused to answer, saying judges should "stay out of commenting on current events".

Probably her most noted line of inquiry, though, came up empty after a lengthy exchange with Mr Kavanaugh over whether he had discussed the special counsel investigation of Mr Trump and Russia with any lawyers at a firm founded by a lawyer for the president.

"Be sure about your answer, sir," she warned in a tone that intimated she knew the answer and it was not good for Mr Kavanaugh. He responded that he was unsure, since Ms Harris would not provide a name. After some investigation, Mr Kavanaugh responded the next day that he had not discussed the inquiry with anyone at the firm. The issue died, and Republicans scoffed that Ms Harris looked foolish.

"I hope the Democrats have learnt from the antics of 2018... Some of the most aggressive questioning came from Harris, and some of the things that lacked any credibility came from her," said Mr Grassley, a Republican.

Democrats on the panel said they anticipated that Ms Harris would join them in trying to use the hearings to showcase policy divisions with Republicans over the ACA, commonly known as Obamacare, stressing that Ms Barrett could join four other conservatives on the court in overturning it.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2020, with the headline 'Big stage, big risks for Harris at judge's confirmation hearing'. Print Edition | Subscribe