Harris's path on police reform littered with land mines

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden VP race is highly fluid days before expected pick Harris, Ocasio-Cortez push climate equity bill with Green New Deal roots Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-Calif.), the front-runner to be former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Biden clarifies comments comparing African American and Latino communities Kanye West may have missed deadline to get on Wisconsin ballot by minutes: report MORE’s running mate, will be a major influence on deciding whether Democrats decide to cut a deal with Senate Republicans on police reform next week.

Harris, along with Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Ex-USAID employee apologizes, denies sending explosive tweets MORE (D-N.J.), is a lead sponsor of a joint Senate-House Democratic police reform proposal, which would ban chokeholds, no-knock drug warrants for federal drug cases and reform the doctrine of qualified immunity that shields police officers from lawsuits.

For anything to get done in Congress on police reform, Harris will have to sign off on a deal with Sen. Tim ScottTimothy (Tim) Eugene ScottLobbyists see wins, losses in GOP coronavirus bill Revered civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis lies in state in the Capitol GOP plan would boost deduction for business meals MORE (R-S.C.), who is the lead sponsor of Republican legislation that would incentivize police departments to abandon chokeholds but not mandate it. His bill would only collect data on no-knock warrants and let qualified immunity stand.

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Booker and Scott have talked regularly in recent days on finding middle ground, but Harris, as of Friday, had not had any direct conversations with Scott. They’ve traded voicemails, a sign of Harris’s lack of enthusiasm for the GOP proposal.

“He and I have been playing phone tag since I think the first time I called him was Friday of last week,” Harris said.

She said Scott’s bill “doesn’t meet the moment, and I urge him to adopt our bill as a much more relevant opportunity to correct what’s wrong with the system.”

Booker indicated Thursday that he’s unlikely to cut a deal without Harris.

“Kamala’s my full partner on this and so we are locked in,” he said. “Kamala and I are open and communicating and we are doing this together.”

If Harris agrees to a compromise bill that civil rights advocates view as too weak, she risks getting criticized by groups on the left, something that could hurt her chances of being named to the presidential ticket.

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Harris also has to tread carefully as a former prosecutor who had to defend her record earlier this year during the Democratic presidential primary.

Lara Bazelon, a law professor and the former director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, opined in The New York Times in January of last year that Harris “was not a ‘progressive prosecutor.’”

Bazelon criticized Harris ahead of the primary for fighting “tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions” that the professor said “had been secured through official misconduct.”

She reiterated some of her criticisms of Harris’s record from 2004 to 2015 in an article published in The Appeal in December after Harris ended her presidential campaign

But Bazelon told Politico this month that Harris in recent years has positioned herself “on the right side” of law enforcement issues.

“I don’t think there’s the interest or the oxygen to re-litigate it,” she said of Harris’s work as a prosecutor. “She’s positioned herself in the last couple of years as someone who really is on the right side of these issues and that carries weight.”

She called Harris’s law enforcement record a “net neutral.”

Any bill Harris supports must counter the negative narrative that emerged during the primary and not give critics more ammunition, said Democratic strategist Steve Jarding.

Jarding says Harris needs to “be bold.”

“This is a chance for her to show that she can take the lead and she can be an asset on the ticket,” he said.

“When you’re attorney general and effectively a prosecutor, there’s a chance in this climate that could hurt you. We saw it with [Sen.] Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Lobbying world MORE,” he said.

Jarding said if he were Harris, “I would be less concerned about getting it passed,” warning that if Harris agrees to water down Democratic reforms to get a bill through the Senate, “then I think she would look worse.”

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“It would play into the critics who said she was too harsh as attorney general when it came to people of color,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks Overnight Health Care: Ohio governor tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of Trump's visit | US shows signs of coronavirus peak, but difficult days lie ahead | Trump: COVID-19 vaccine may be ready 'right around' Election Day MORE (R-Ky.) made clear last week that he has little interest in moving much more in the direction of Booker and Harris’s police reform bill.

“They want to basically ... federalize all of these issues,” he said, vowing the Senate-House Democratic proposal “is going nowhere in the Senate.”

The other thing Harris has to be wary of is the likelihood that any legislation passed by Congress, even if it falls short of what advocates of police reform on the left are calling for, would be seized by President TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says his faith is 'bedrock foundation of my life' after Trump claim Coronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame Ohio governor tests negative in second coronavirus test MORE as a major accomplishment and touted during his race against Biden.

Trump in recent days has trumpeted his signing of the First Step Act criminal justice reform bill in 2018, legislation that according to one of its lead sponsors, Sen. Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic MORE (D-Ill.), Trump had little interest in moving until his son-in-law and White House adviser Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerLincoln Project ad dubs Jared Kushner the 'Secretary of Failure' Deutsche Bank launches investigation into longtime banker of Trump, Kushner Watchdog group accuses Stephen Miller of violating Hatch Act with Biden comments MORE stepped in and championed.

Robert Borosage, the co-founder of Campaign for America’s Future, a liberal advocacy group, said Harris “has to walk a line.”

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“She has to make it clear that if there is a bill that emerges it’s only the beginning and it is simply, not even a down payment, but a first step,” he said.

But Borosage noted that Harris is also under some pressure to get something moving. Simply nixing the legislation Scott and his GOP colleagues introduced last week may leave fellow Democrats disappointed.

“I do think people are ready for things to move,” he said.

Borosage said if Harris can move a modest bill with bipartisan Senate support and makes it clear that it was all she could get from Republicans but that she had a broader multipoint reform bill, "I think she can navigate it.”

“But it’s tricky,” he cautioned.

One such Democrat is Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiCoronavirus talks on life support as parties dig in, pass blame On The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Top Democrats say postmaster confirmed changes to mail service amid delays MORE (Calif.), who told reporters that she would like to enter into a bicameral negotiation on any police reform bill that emerges from the Senate.

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Borosage cautioned that Harris still has to prove herself to the party’s liberal base.

“She’s seen as somebody who ran out of the Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump touts economic agenda in battleground Ohio The Memo: Campaigns gird for rush of early voting Trump's pitch to Maine lobstermen falls flat MORE posture and made a few gestures to the left early and then backed away from them,” he said, citing Harris’s evolution to the center on the issue of “Medicare for All.”

“I don’t think anyone on the left sees her as a progressive in the Sanders-Warren tradition,” he added, referring to Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money: Pessimism grows as coronavirus talks go down to the wire | Jobs report poised to light fire under COVID-19 talks | Tax preparers warn unemployment recipients could owe IRS Senators introduce bill to block Trump armed drone sale measure Sanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who ran the best with progressives in the primary. 

This story was updated at 11:37 to reflect Lara Bazelon's more recent remarks about Harris.