- Vice President Kamala Harris is under pressure from the left to go to war over a minimum wage hike.
- Expect more campaigns to pressure Harris on everything from climate change to racial justice.
- Progressives hope they can leverage Harris' political ambitions to push her and Biden to the left.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Progressives want to use Vice President Kamala Harris' presidential ambitions as leverage to nudge her to the left of President Joe Biden in some high-stakes policy fights, including living wages, climate change, and criminal justice reform.
Harris, who's in prime position to become Democrats' standard bearer if Biden doesn't run again in 2024, would want the support of the party's left flank. And even though her term as Biden's veep is just getting started, progressives are already seizing the opportunity to get her on their side as they attempt to prod the administration.
"Harris, who actuarially is a reasonable candidate for president in 2024, is a leverage point for progressives, and it would be silly to ignore that," said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project, a government watchdog group.
Progressives rallied around Biden as Democrats banded together to boot Donald Trump from the White House. But party unity is already being tested: Democrats are actively debating how hard to fight over including a minimum wage hike in the latest pandemic relief bill.
Other fissures are certain as Biden presses a sweeping policy agenda with slim majorities in the House and Senate. Meanwhile, the 2022 midterm elections are already looming over members of Congress.
The Democrats' most strident liberals want bold reforms now on issues such as health care, criminal justice reform, and environmental justice. And they're hoping to enlist the new vice president in their effort.
"At some point, she's going to run for president and at some point, the biggest challenge in the primary is not going to come from her right, it's going to come from her left," said Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive activist who served on a policy task force set up by Biden and Bernie Sanders after Biden clinched the primary.
As vice president and the Senate's presiding officer, Harris has a choice about how to "leverage those positions to lead," El-Sayed said. "She has an opportunity to define the future for the next 10 years."
The $15 federal minimum wage push is most urgent for progressives, as they attempt to leverage Harris against Biden as the latest COVID relief package wends through Congress.
Progressive House lawmakers penned a letter to Biden and Harris on Monday urging the vice president, as the Senate's presiding officer, to overrule a procedural decision that the minimum wage hike couldn't be included in the mammoth spending package.
"This ruling is a bridge too far" for progressives, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who led the letter to Biden and Harris, said in a statement. "If we don't overrule the Senate parliamentarian, we are condoning poverty wages for millions of Americans."
Minimum wage fight doomed?
The left appears doomed on this particular effort — at least for now.
White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said in late February that the Biden administration wouldn't try to overrule the Senate parliamentarian if she decided against the inclusion of the minimum wage increase. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said after the parliamentarian's ruling that Biden "respects the parliamentarian's decision and the Senate's process."
Biden and Harris both support raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, but it's unclear whether the effort could win enough support from Democrats to clear the Senate.
David Sirota, a columnist and former advisor and speechwriter for Bernie Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, on Monday tweeted a post from Harris in February 2019 in which she called for a $15 minimum wage.
"Today is the one-year anniversary of this tweet and @KamalaHarris is signaling that she will not use her power as presiding officer of the Senate to advance the $15 minimum wage," Sirota wrote.
Such a tweet is an indication that liberal Democrats are willing to use Harris' sometimes left-of-Biden statements from her own run as a 2020 presidential candidate to make political points.
The influential youth-led environmental advocacy group the Sunrise Movement, for example, is watching to see whether the Biden administration delivers on campaign promises to enact systemic change when it comes to COVID-19 relief, climate change, and the economy.
"The American majority is seeking for those two candidates to fulfill those promises, and they came in with the mandate that they were going to fulfill an FDR moment," Sunrise Movement spokesman John Paul Mejia told Insider. "We know that not long ago Kamala Harris was confronted with the campaign promise of delivering a $15 minimum wage and that was threatened or pressured by the parliamentarian."
Mejia said "any failure" to deliver those promises to the American people "can lead to mistrust."
At minimum, several far-left super PACs and politically active nonprofit groups have the financial resources to mount grassroots and advertising campaigns on policy issues of importance to them.
No one expects Harris to brazenly defy Biden. Progressives nevertheless hope that mounting a public pressure campaign stressing Harris' power in the Senate will bring the president on board, too.
"I doubt that you can expect Kamala Harris to be part of the resistance from inside," said a former Democratic Senate staffer.
Kurt Bardella, former senior advisor to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, said it makes sense for Harris to serve as a conduit for progressives in Congress. But it can only go so far. At least right now.
"Unity within Democratic ranks is crucial right now," Bardella said. "The vice president is positioned to be one of the most impactful VPs in history but translating that into meaningful action will take time and patience. Her first and foremost role is to support the agenda set by the president."
Asked Monday for Harris' response to the House progressives' letter, the vice president's spokeswoman Sabrina Singh referred Insider to previous statements made by Klain and Psaki.
'Utilize that ambition as a lever'
Progressive strategists say this won't be the last time the left pressures Harris on policy.
"I absolutely imagine this will recur," Hauser said.
Harris and the White House don't want to talk about the next presidential race, but progressives are well aware that Harris may again run for president — perhaps sooner rather than later.
Biden may yet run for re-election in 2024. But he'll be 82 in 2024, Hauser noted.
"Harris is going to be the frontrunner who's no worse than the second-most likely person to be nominated for president in 2024. And I imagine that she would like to increase her chances as much as possible," he said.
Hauser's group isn't doing electoral work, he said, but progressives are hoping to "utilize that ambition as a lever."
Policies where the left might try to pressure Harris include "issues where there's a gap between Washington, DC, elites and political polling," like the minimum wage, Hauser said.
Climate change and racial justice issues are other policy areas that Hauser said the left might nudge Harris on — climate change because it's important to young voters and racial justice to erase "any residual doubts" about her past as a prosecutor.
The left could also seize on areas where there were differences between Biden and Harris on the campaign trail.
Everyone remembers when Biden and Harris sparred over race and busing on the debate stage.
Harris initially favored Medicare for All before ditching the plan and backing a 10-year transition to a government-run healthcare system. Biden supports a public option instead.
Harris also introduced legislation last year to ban all evictions and foreclosures during the pandemic. Biden, instead, supported a government partnership with states and cities to offer rental relief. But it stopped short of a ban on evictions. Several local municipalities across the country have instead enacted bans on their own since then.
The two also have opposing views on marijuana. Harris, as a US senator, supported legalizing marijuana on the federal level and clearing non-violent marijuana related charges. Biden supports decriminalizing marijuana possession, but doesn't support federal legalization.
But it's important to recall that after they faced off, Biden emerged as the presidential nominee, said the former Democratic staffer.
"She lost. Biden won. Biden's worldview won," the staffer said.
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