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Democrats’ Senate losses jeopardize national spotlight for possible 2020 hopeful

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) speaks with survivors of sexual assault on Capitol Hill in September. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Senate Democrats’ midterm losses have created a dilemma for the party’s leadership over a key committee seat held by Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a prospective 2020 presidential contender who is at risk of having to forfeit the high-profile assignment and the national spotlight that comes with it.

Harris, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, is the Senate Judiciary Committee’s most junior member. The panel’s investigations and Supreme Court confirmation battles have commanded regular media coverage since President Trump entered the Oval Office. It’s the kind of exposure a new senator usually could only dream of, and with everything from an attorney general confirmation to oversight of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe on next year’s agenda, its limelight won’t soon fade.

Yet unless Democrats strike a deal, either with the Senate’s Republican majority or with fellow Democrats on the committee, numbers and seniority dictate that Harris will be out — and that has liberal groups scrambling to save her position.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) asked Brett M. Kavanaugh about Christine Blasey Ford's accusations at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in September 2018. (Video: Reuters)

“Not only would it be unconscionable to remove the only African American woman from the committee, but Sen. Harris also is the most skilled questioner on the entire panel,” said Brian Fallon, executive director of Demand Justice, a liberal advocacy group challenging Trump’s nominations for federal judgeships. “Whatever options they need to consider, removing Harris should not be one of them. The backlash would be intense.”

In a Senate full of lawyers, Harris is seen as one of Democratic Party’s most talented interrogators — skills she put on display during the committee’s contentious hearing to address sexual assault allegations brought against Brett M. Kavanaugh, who eventually won Senate confirmation to the Supreme Court. She is also one of only two African Americans on the committee — the other being the Democrats’ next-most-junior member, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who also has presidential aspirations.

Shortly after the midterm elections, Harris told Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that she wanted to stay on the Judiciary panel, according to her spokeswoman, Lily Adams. For Democrats who have repeatedly pointed out that the Republican side of the dais is all male and all white, the prospect of losing Harris is anathema.

“She’s a real lawyer, she is the real deal, she’s a pro, and she also happens to be an African American woman,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), also a member of the panel. “She belongs on that committee . . . she is an ideal member.”

Serious discussions about committee size and composition will begin in earnest following the results of a runoff election in Mississippi this month. And it is by no means assured that Harris will lose her seat.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Schumer, the minority leader, could agree to expand the number of Republicans on the panel, so that no Democrats are forced off — something Blumenthal said “magically” happened for him after Democrats lost the Senate majority in 2014.

“It was possible; it can be done,” he said. “The majority leader just makes it happen.”

In a statement, Schumer said, “Senator Kamala Harris is a terrific member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and we are going to do everything we can to keep her there.”

But there is little incentive for McConnell to accommodate a presumed Democratic star in the making, save for progressive groups promising a backlash if she is removed. Some Republican officials already believe the 21-member panel is too large, and with members Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) retiring, there is little reason for Republicans to expand their own ranks.

McConnell’s office declined to comment about committee breakdowns before negotiations over ratios commence. But according to two people familiar with deliberations, McConnell has been eyeing putting incoming Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a vocal opponent of abortion rights, on the Judiciary panel. It is possible the GOP could elect to fill only one of the open seats on the panel next year.

That would leave Democrats with limited options: agree to a greater deficit on other committees to preserve Judiciary seats for potential 2020 hopefuls, or convince a more senior Democrat to take one for the team.

Leaders could try to lure Democrats away from Judiciary with spots on other panels, such as Senate Finance, where the midterm losses of Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) may create new vacancies. But those panels are not as likely to command national attention or provide political opportunities to challenge Trump.

The predicament is punctuating rumbling discontent on and off Capitol Hill with the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) — frustration that reached a “flash point” during the Kavanaugh hearings, according to one person familiar with committee members’ thinking.

Some Democrats privately complain that Feinstein exercised poor political judgment by not publicly releasing a letter from Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford. They also spoke of unsatisfactory discipline and organization under Feinstein’s leadership and fears that could handicap the party when they face off with Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who is expected to be the panel’s next chairman.

In a statement, Feinstein said, “I plan to continue as ranking member and look forward to working with Senator Graham where we can when he takes over as chairman.” A spokesman for Feinstein said she had a “great relationship” with Harris, but declined to comment about the future of her seat on the panel.

Supporters and critics alike insisted there is no effort afoot to deprive Feinstein of her leadership role until she is ready to relinquish it — and stressed that as a 26-year veteran of the Senate, she commands as much respect from Graham as anyone.

But some members still wish Feinstein would step aside and allow the party’spanel’s No. 2 Democrat, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), who has worked with Graham on matters from immigration to criminal-justice reform, to take over. There are some who believe he would be a more reliable and energetic challenger against the often irascible Graham, especially when it comes to the GOP’s efforts to confirm conservative judges, according to people familiar with members’ thinking.

A Durbin spokeswoman did not comment for this article.

Such a move could also create space for Harris to stay. But according to operatives and watchers of California Democratic politics, the odds of Feinstein stepping aside to save Harris’s seat are slim to none.

“I personally think she is a ‘die with her boots on’ kind of person,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime strategist for former senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat who held a seat from California for more than two decades.

Most California Democrats assume that Feinstein, who won reelection this year, will not run again — and thus does not need national exposure as much as Harris does. But making way for Harris would be tantamount to an endorsement in a still wide-open Democratic presidential field, they said, in which others close to Feinstein might be running.

But if Schumer can’t save her seat, Kapolczynski said, Harris shouldn’t flinch.

“Don’t you think she’s beyond committee assignments at this point?” Kapolczynski said. “If I were advising Harris, I would advise her to shrug it off and move on. She has such a high profile, she’s such a compelling figure, that she doesn’t need the Judiciary Committee to demand the spotlight.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was the panel’s No. 2 Democrat; he is the party’s No. 2 Democrat, and ranks No. 3 of the Democrats on the panel, behind Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).

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