The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Power Up: Kamala Harris gets high-profile, politically fraught immigration assignment

with Tobi Raji

Good Thursday morning. Tune in to President Biden's first formal news conference with The Post's Libby Casey & co. at 12:45 p.m. E.T. today. This is the Power Up newsletter – thanks for waking up with us.

At the White House

PORTFOLIO DEFINED: Vice President Harris has been tapped to oversee efforts to slow the rush of migrants to the southern border – a high profile and politically fraught assignment amid fresh concerns from lawmakers and activists about the growing crisis, my colleague Sean Sullivan and I report. 

The decision puts Harris in charge of one of the toughest problems facing the Biden administration, involving an issue that has vexed the last few presidencies. Until now, Harris lacked a specific portfolio, though Biden had said he wanted to put her in charge of pressing issues as they arose, a role he played for former president Barack Obama.

Over the course of Obama's two terms, Biden was asked to run point on significant assignments, ranging from Iraq drawdown to the economic stimulus bill and immigration; as president he seems to want Harris to play a similarly influential role. “When she speaks, she speaks for me,” Biden said of Harris.

Harris is widely seen as a potential successor to Biden and the assignment gives her an opportunity to bolster her foreign policy credentials, strengthen her ties to the Latino community and resolve a complex problem.

But the potential for failure is also clear, and a stumble could hurt her presidential ambitions. 

  • "Border issues divide our base – most Democratic voters will think she went too far or was too weak, and Republicans would love nothing more than to make this the central issue in any campaign against her," a Democratic strategist told Power Up.

Our colleague Olivier Knox reported earlier this month that while Harris was playing “an integral role in Biden's foreign policy, putting her personal stamp on behind-the-scenes debates and on the world stage as she works to advance Biden’s diplomatic agenda," Biden had yet to entrust her with a specific national security portfolio. 

On Wednesday, Biden called Harris “the most qualified person” to lead the U.S. dialogue with Mexico and Central American countries “that are going to need help in stemming the movement of so many folks.” 

  • The border strategy includes a two-pronged goal of working to stem the flow of migrants and establishing a strategic partnership with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. 
  • Harris said: “While we are clear that people should not come to the border now, we also understand that we will enforce the law and that we also — because we can chew gum and walk at the same time — must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek.”

Harris's new role also suggests that the White House sees the border surge – the biggest in 20 years – as a more serious problem than it has sometimes conveyed. 

Harris herself called the surge of migrants at the border a “huge problem." But there's no guarantee that her talks with the Northern Triangle countries will yield results. Human rights activists have raised concerns about migrants’ treatment at the border and the housing provided for unaccompanied children and teenagers arriving at the border. There are more than 11,000 children in custody of HHS. Nearly 5,000 more are in Customs and Border Protection facilities, which is nearly twice the previous record, according to the latest figures released by the government. 

If those worries do not subside, Harris could face backlash from Democrats already frustrated with Biden on immigration issues. And Republicans have already started attacked Harris's pick for the role: 

  • “At no point in her career has she given any indication that she considers the border a problem or a serious threat,” Arizona Governor Doug Ducey (R) said yesterday. 

In the media

HAPPENING TODAY: Biden is likely to face tough questions on the crisis at the southern border during his first solo White House news conference today. 

It was announced early last week on the heels of the passage of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. “But nine days are often more like dog years in the life of a president, and somewhere between planning and execution, reality intruded,” our colleagues Ashley Parker and Sean Sullivan report. 

  • Guns: “The nation is reeling from two back-to-back mass shootings, which left a total of 18 people dead — 10 at a supermarket in Boulder, Colo., on Monday and eight last Wednesday during a rampage at three spas in the Atlanta area. In response, Biden on Tuesday waded into a heated cultural debate over the role of guns in society, calling for tighter gun law restrictions that include an assault weapons ban and the expansion of background checks.”
  • But not only that: “In addition, Biden is facing intraparty tensions over the lack of Asian American and Pacific Islander representation at the highest levels of his administration; is working to manage another intraparty debate about whether to reform the Senate filibuster; and is monitoring the situation in North Korea, which recently fired off a series of short-range missiles.”
  • Health records: “After thrice tripping while walking up the steps of Air Force One on Friday, the 78-year-old president could also face questions about the stumble — or when he plans to release his updated health records, which he has not done since late 2019.”

And then there's North Korea, which “fired two ballistic missiles on Thursday, in a sign of growing tension between Washington and Pyongyang over military exercises the United States carried out with South Korea earlier this month,” our colleagues Min Joo Kim and John Hudson report. This is “Pyongyang’s second weapons test in a week … [and] the first such launch in almost a year.”

GAFFE MACHINE – OR NO LONGER?: “Biden has surprised many longtime associates with the discipline and conciseness of his communications as president so far,” our colleague Matt Viser reports. “Thursday’s session may show whether Biden is really more disciplined now, or whether the restrictions of the pandemic – and the tight controls on the presidency – just make it it seem that way.” 

  • “He certainly has been very disciplined,” said Mike McCurry, who was press secretary in the Clinton White House. “They’re working from more formal statements. He’s not mixing it up or being as impromptu as he was during previous parts of his career.”

“But some of the same garrulousness that caused him problems three decades ago is still prompting headaches,” Viser adds. “For all their efforts to exert control, Biden’s White House aides have had to correct various statements during his two months in office.” 

  • “That means this first presidential news conference presents pitfalls for Biden, who once confessed, ‘I am a gaffe machine.’”

On the Hill

SENATE CONFIRMS ANOTHER HISTORIC NOMINATION: “The Senate on Wednesday voted 52 to 48 to confirm Rachel Levine as the nation’s assistant secretary for health, making her the highest-ranking openly transgender official in U.S. history,” our colleague Dan Diamond reports. “Levine is expected to be sworn in later this week."

Meanwhile, there are 464 vacancies in Biden's administration that have yet to be filled, our Post colleagues report.

ALL EYES ON VOTING RIGHTS: “Democrats began pushing on Wednesday for the most substantial expansion of voting rights in a half-century, laying the groundwork in the Senate for what would be a fundamental change to the ways voters get to the polls and elections are run,” the New York Times’s Nicholas Fandos reports

  • “At a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders made a passionate case for a bill that would mandate automatic voter registration nationwide, expand early and mail-in voting, end gerrymandering that skews congressional districts for maximum partisan advantage and curb the influence of money in politics.”
  • “The effort is taking shape as Republicans have introduced more than 250 bills to restrict voting in 43 states and have continued to spread false accusations of fraud and impropriety in the 2020 election.”
  • “It was the start of an uphill battle by Senate Democrats who have characterized what they call the For the People Act as the civil rights imperative of modern times.”

The people

CUOMO CONTROVERSIES CONTINUE: “As the coronavirus pandemic swept through New York early last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s administration arranged for his family members and other well-connected figures to have special access to state-administered coronavirus tests, dispatching a top state doctor and other state health officials to their homes,” our colleagues Josh Dawsey, Amy Brittain and Sarah Ellison report.

  • “Among those who benefited from the priority testing program was Cuomo’s brother Chris, who was diagnosed with covid-19 in late March of 2020. The CNN anchor was swabbed by a top New York Department of Health doctor, who visited his Hamptons home to collect samples from him and his family,” per Dawsey, Brittain and Ellison.
  • “The use of state resources to benefit people close to the governor raises serious ethical questions. New York law prohibits state officials from using their positions to secure privileges for themselves or others.”
  • More: “The revelation that one of the network’s biggest stars received special medical treatment from his brother’s administration [also] raises ethical questions for CNN.”

The policies

‘ONE CANNOT SIMPLY OUTPERFORM INEQUALITY’: “Megan Rapinoe took the U.S. national women’s soccer team’s battle for equal pay to the House of Representatives on Wednesday, testifying ‘there is no level of status, accomplishments, or power that will protect you from the clutches of inequity,’” our colleagues Des Bieler and Cindy Boren report

  • Rapinoe later spoke at an event marking Equal Pay Day at the White House where Biden and first lady Jill Biden were in attendance. “My administration is going to fight for equal pay,” Biden said. 

Rapinoe also called out the NCAA over gender disparities at the women's tournament during the congressional hearing. 

  • A group of 36 Democrats issued a letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert, our colleague Molly Hensley-Clancy reports, asking for "a review of the NCAA’s other championships and raised questions about the organization’s role in fueling inequity in college sports, a sign that scrutiny of the NCAA is likely to expand beyond this month’s men’s and women’s basketball tournament."

The Golden State Warriors's Draymond Green added to pressure on Emmert during an interview with the Post Live, comparing the NCAA's treatment of college athletes to "modern day slavery." Green endorsed legislation authored by Sen. Chris Muphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) that would allow and set a national standard for college athletes to profit off their name, image, and likeness, and would protect athletes right to organize. 

  • "You know, if you know something’s going wrong… if you’re watching a rapist take advantage of a young woman or a young man, and you don’t say anything, you’re just as guilty as that rapist," Green told us yesterday. “We’ve watched this modern day slavery take place long enough, and it’s time for a change.” 
  • He also excoriated the NCAA for its treatment of women: "I think women are constantly overlooked. I think women are always a step behind just because you’re a woman. As, you know, Black people, you’re always a step behind just because you’re African American. And if you’re an African American woman, you’re even more steps behind. The NCAA and the weight room disparities show their beliefs in that."

NEW LABOR SECRETARY TALKS INEQUALITY, RACISM AND UNION POWER: New labor secretary Marty Walsh spoke with our colleague Eli Rosenberg “about how systemic racism affects workers of color, why gig companies may not be able to count on government support for their workers indefinitely and what the Biden administration can do to get women back in the labor force after a brutal year.”

  • “Walsh takes the reins of the agency at a moment when workplace issues are more central to the national political discussion than any other time in recent history.”

Outside the Beltway

NEW: “An updated company analysis of the coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford showed that the two-shot regimen was robustly effective — 76 percent at preventing symptomatic illness,” our colleague Carolyn Y. Johnson reports

  • “The finding, only slightly lower than results announced days earlier, underscores that the vaccine being widely used by many countries appears to be a powerful tool to help end the pandemic.”

BOULDER SHOOTING UPDATE: Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, 21, “was charged Tuesday with 10 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder,” our colleagues Ari Schneider, Timothy Bella and Annie Gowen report. He will appear in court today.

Meanwhile, the gun implicated in the Boulder massacre uses the same ammunition as an AR-15, but it’s still considered a pistol, our colleague Alex Horton reports. “Two key components that help define what a rifle is, the barrel and the stock, have been altered by firearm manufacturers to circumvent existing gun laws, producing a weapon that functions much like a rifle but is legally classified as a pistol. The result is the AR-15-style pistol.”

  • “The weapon has become more visible following the massacre in Boulder, Colo. … The platform has been used in other mass shootings. A gunman in Dayton, Ohio, killed nine people in 2019 with an AR-15-style pistol.”