Harris takes central role in climate fight

Vice President Harris arrives to the Senate Chamber on Monday, August 2, 2021 for a meeting.
Greg Nash

When Vice President Harris took the lead Monday on selling the Biden administration’s infrastructure and climate change plans, her allies say it represented a moment for her to speak to an issue that she has championed since her days as a senator. 

“She is very personally engaged in climate and environmental justice,” said one ally close to the White House, pointing to Harris’s days in the Senate. 

“In the Senate, she had more meaningful climate bills than people realized,” the ally said, pointing to the former California senator’s climate equity plan unveiled in 2019 with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). 

That bill was a large part of the Democrats’ Green New Deal and sought to ensure that low-income families would reap the benefits of the climate change proposals.  

During her time in the Senate, Harris co-sponsored eight resolutions and 24 bills addressing climate change, limiting pollution and expanding wildlife preservation. And when she left for the Biden administration, Ike Irby, her climate policy adviser, was one of the few staffers who made the transition. 

A White House official on Monday pointed specifically to the legislation Harris authored that addresses the Western water crisis and wildfires and said “components” of the bills, including the Water for Tomorrow Act and the Wildfire Defense Act, are included in the infrastructure deal.  

Allies expect that she’ll play a central role in the administration’s push on climate issues — particularly as Biden’s proposals on climate risk being slashed in part because of a legislative standoff with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).  

“The vice president is a credible surrogate who is popular with progressives,” said Democratic strategist Joel Payne. “It makes sense that the administration would leverage her voice to achieve this key part of the president’s agenda. It signals to the base how serious the president is about addressing climate as a priority and helps apply some pressure on Democratic holdouts.” 

Speaking on Monday at Lake Mead in Nevada, where water has been draining at an alarming pace, Harris pleaded with Congress to pass Biden’s economic agenda, which includes the climate components.  

“This is a fundamental issue,” Harris said while standing in front of the lake, which has become a symbol of the growing climate crisis. “Every living thing depends and requires on water and its existence and its prevalence. 

“It is critical that we as a nation understand that we have within our hands, within our possession, the ability to actually change the course of where we’re headed,” she said.  

“So let’s get these bills passed,” she added, before concluding her speech.  

In recent days, Harris has sought to push the stalled infrastructure and reconciliation legislation in other ways, taking part in events on child care and female entrepreneurship. 

Harris’s allies, for months, have privately complained that she had failed to find a policy issue that aptly suited her strengths. 

She stumbled in the early months of the administration, in part because of a portfolio that included immigration. On her first foreign trip, she drew negative headlines for making comments about asylum-seekers trying to come to the United States, telling them “don’t come here,” a remark that angered some progressives.

She drew further criticism when she claimed that she had been to the Mexican border when she had not, and when she said defensively in an NBC interview in response to questions about not going to the border that “I haven’t been to Europe either.”

Democrats also grumbled over why Harris hadn’t been more involved in the coronavirus relief plan earlier in the year, after the White House appointed Gene Sperling to oversee its execution.

“She doesn’t neatly fit in one policy box,” said one ally in Harris’s orbit. “That’s been the problem.”

Despite that rough patch, Harris has seen her approval numbers rebound in recent weeks. A Gallup poll last month showed 49 percent approved of her job as vice president, 6 points higher than Biden’s approval rating of 43 percent.

And strategists say putting Harris out front on the issue of climate allows her to tackle something important to the base.

“It is certainly an issue that she has some credibility with,” one Democratic strategist said. “I can see the thinking on the part of the administration to engage her in the public discussion as red meat to the base.”

The strategist added that Harris “can go out and be a little bit more forward leaning on this than the president can.”

Democratic strategist Brad Bannon added that climate change is “a great issue for Vice President Harris in both a political and policy context.”

“The urgency of the threat means that it will become an even more compelling issue as time goes on and she’s ready to run for president,” he said.

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Climate change Infrastructure Joe Manchin

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