As the Rev. William J. Barber II pressed his case for a $15 minimum wage recently, the civil rights leader proclaimed that one elected official faced a defining moment straight out of scripture: Vice President Harris.
“She will be remembered in history one way or the other,” Barber, who delivered the homily at the inaugural prayer service for Harris and President Biden in January, warned in an interview. Later he voiced frustration that his call went unheeded, saying, “You know one thing, you’re not going to win if you don’t fight.”
What he proposed was regarded by Democratic leaders and White House officials, including on Harris’s team, as an extreme and futile gesture, and most Democrats said it was untenable for the vice president to flout her boss’s wishes. As the bill nears the finish line, it is unlikely a wage hike will be in the final version.
But the long-shot push from liberal lawmakers, activists and clergy exposed the conundrum confronting Harris, who is caught between a restive party base crucial to her political future and the more cautious administration in which she serves.
The outside pressure was not lost on senior Harris advisers, and Vincent Evans, a top Harris aide, contacted Barber to say Harris wanted to “have a direct line of communication” with him, Barber said, a prospect he welcomed. “The ball is in their court now,” Barber said Friday.
Harris broke dramatic ground when she became the first woman to win a nationally elected office and the first African American and Asian American to serve as vice president. She is widely seen as a future presidential candidate and a potential heir to Biden, particularly if the 78-year-old decides not to seek reelection in 2024.
But in the short term, many young activists and Black leaders want Harris to be their champion inside a White House headed by an elderly White man and his longtime advisers. That puts her in a painfully sensitive position as she seeks to build a bridge to a new, more diverse generation of Democrats.
Liberals warn that Biden and Harris will pay a price if they do not push harder on issues like the minimum wage, a goal they vow to keep pursuing.
“We got these folks elected on this, and if they fail to deliver, then it’s shameful,” said Brittany Ramos DeBarros, a Democratic congressional candidate in Staten Island and Brooklyn. “It’s a betrayal of the will of the people and the needs of the people.”
Nearly two dozen liberal House members wrote the White House urging Harris to challenge the parliamentarian’s authority, citing instances when past vice presidents did so. Activists such as Barber made a similar argument in an open letter published in the Nation, a left-leaning publication.
Some said such a move would not only be good policy but good politics for Harris in particular.
“You think hundreds of millions of Americans won’t remember who put money in their pocket if she chooses to run for office in the future?” said radio host Lenard Larry McKelvey. “It’s a no-brainer to me.”
McKelvey, who goes by Charlamagne tha God on his show “The Breakfast Club,” which is influential in the African American community, supported Harris when she ran for president in 2019.
White House officials argue that it wouldn’t have mattered what Harris did because a solid majority of senators oppose the minimum-wage hike, as evidenced by a Friday vote. There was no point in tying up passage of the pandemic relief bill for a pointless gesture, they add.
Symone Sanders, senior adviser and chief spokesperson for Harris, stressed that it was not just Harris’s call.
“This is not a unilateral decision or a simple decision on the part of the vice president,” Sanders said. “This is about the commitment that the administration, the president and vice president have made to get a $15 minimum wage done. And they have reasserted their commitment over the last couple of weeks.”
Late last month, Harris’s team held a meeting with liberal groups in which the minimum wage was discussed, according to an official with knowledge of the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive conversations.
Several people close to Harris said challenging the parliamentarian would have squandered political capital — and more important, time — as the country entered its second year of pandemic-induced isolation and was desperate for help.
While pressure comes from outside to act aggressively, inside the White House Harris is obligated to stick with Biden’s more methodical approach to combating a pandemic, an economic crisis and a national reckoning on race.
Biden has responded tepidly to a push from his party’s left flank to dismantle long-standing institutions and norms, such as the Senate filibuster. Many see Harris, 56, as potentially more receptive, since she is a younger, more liberal woman with ties to the activist community.
Harris’s political prospects could depend on how she manages this tug of war. And it’s likely to come into play repeatedly: Beyond the coronavirus legislation, liberals are gearing up to pressure the administration on immigration, climate change and other issues that animate the Democratic base but which Biden has navigated carefully.
Liberal and Black activists say it was their organizing that put Biden in office and won the Democrats the Senate majority, and they expect results.
“The question is going to be: As we look to enact these policies, how hard will he fight for them?” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “This is in many ways a harbinger for other policies that Democrats have committed to enacting if we got the Senate, the House and the White House. And voters are not going to understand procedural arguments.”
The latest dispute arose when Democrats decided to push the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package through the Senate using “reconciliation,” a tactic that allows budget-related bills to avoid a filibuster and pass with a simple majority rather than 60 votes.
The Senate parliamentarian said that meant the minimum-wage hike had to be removed from the bill, since it was not a budget measure. Democrats became highly agitated, fearing many of their other priorities would also fail to qualify for reconciliation, making their passage far less likely.
Activists rallied behind the idea that Harris, in her constitutional role as president of the Senate, could override the parliamentarian.
The White House quickly rejected such a move, signaling that Biden was committed to abiding by Senate rules.
Activists countered that there was value in pressing the fight, since it would show voters the administration was doing all it could to get people help they need and increase pressure on opponents.
Despite dramatically different circumstances, Harris’s situation follows pressure from conservative activists on Vice President Mike Pence to use the perceived powers of the vice presidency to overturn the election results, which he was unwilling and unable to do.
Bakari Sellers, a former South Carolina state legislator who endorsed Harris’s presidential bid, said that in the early months of Biden’s presidency, interest groups and left-leaning lawmakers are probing to see where they can effectively exert pressure to influence the administration. “People are trying to figure out how they can win,” he said.
Still, some liberals are trying to give Harris space for now. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was among those urging Harris to overrule the parliamentarian, but she praised Harris’s broader commitment to liberal priorities, saying, “She’s done a great job and she’s really pushed the envelope on progressive issues.”
Beyond her frequent role at Biden’s side, Harris has been handed an unusually high profile by political happenstance. Following January’s special elections in Georgia, the Senate is evenly split between the Democratic caucus and Republicans, and the Constitution gives her the tiebreaking vote.
So far, she has made a point of staying in unwavering lockstep with Biden’s priorities and messaging. Harris has also served a role rich in symbolism and imagery, swearing in women and minority members of an unusually diverse Cabinet.
What’s less clear is how Harris’s role will crystallize beyond that in the months to come, as she seeks to notch accomplishments and build support for a potential presidential run. South Carolina state Rep. JA Moore, who also endorsed Harris in the presidential primary, said tackling many issues quickly may be a less effective approach than adopting a more protracted strategy.
“The runway that the vice president has right now is long, as far as the opportunities to address these issues that are important to people that have been in need for a long time,” Moore said. “I think she’s calculating what makes the most sense and what will be the most effective.”
Others, such as Barber, are less patient. The open letter in the Nation that he co-wrote told Harris: “Your actions will determine whether you are remembered alongside Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and other rebellious, heroic women who have fought for justice and were not stopped by those who cautioned patience, moderation, and gradualism.”