Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) used her first allotted questioning time during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to zero-in on the Democratic ticket’s closing campaign message: an unambiguous defense of the Affordable Care Act.
“Over the last nine years, Republicans in Congress have tried 70 times—70 times—to repeal or roll back the ACA,” Harris said on Tuesday evening. “In 2013, Senate Republicans were so desperate to stop its success that they shut down the entire government four weeks after President Trump was elected. Washington Republicans spent nearly a year trying to repeal the ACA.”
The approach kept perfectly in line with Democrats’ health care push following Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death in late September. In the last weeks of the presidential election, both Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden have made protecting the landmark Obama-era legislation a crucial part of their pitch for the White House. The push has been met with even more urgency as President Donald Trump continues to brand it as a failed policy during a national public health crisis.
“More than 215,000 died, and millions, including the president [and] Republican members of this committee and more than 100 front line workers here at the Capitol complex have been infected,” Harris said about COVID-19. “This pandemic has led to an historic economic crisis, causing millions of workers to lose their jobs without warning, and 12 million Americans have lost their employer based health insurance.”
The hearing to confirm Barrett, which started on Monday morning and rolled into Tuesday night, awarded Harris a follow-up chance to drill similar points she addressed during last week’s debate against Vice President Mike Pence. When matched against Pence, she often deployed an unhurried, straight-to-viewers style, attempting to reach voters through the television in a way aides said was deliberate.
During Barrett’s hearing, Harris spoke to her directly. “People are scared of what will happen if the Affordable Care Act is destroyed in the middle of a pandemic,” the senator said.
Harris dialed-in from her office remotely at 7 p.m. out of caution over coronavirus, which infected two GOP members of the committee—though only one, Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), showed up in person. The virtual appearance was in accordance with the Biden campaign’s strategy to maintain a safe distance from others.
“Right now, the Trump administration and Congressional Republicans are urging the Supreme Court to strike down the entire Affordable Care Act and all of its patient protections,” Harris doubled down. “Republicans are scrambling to confirm this nominee, as fast as possible, because they need one more Trump judge on the bench before November to win and strike down the entire Affordable Care Act.”
“This is not hyperbole,” she said, using a twist on one of Biden’s own favorite phrases.
In deciding to offer the running mate position to Harris in August, Biden chose to elevate one of the Democratic Party’s newest talents in the Senate to the presidential ticket. While serving as the most junior member of the Judiciary Committee among Democrats, the California senator has already had several prodigious performances questioning high-profile Republicans, including those close to Trump.
Senate Judiciary Committee hearings are part of what helped Harris become a highly visible senator before and after announcing her own presidential bid in January 2019. Her part in one of the messiest and most drawn-out confirmation fights in recent history, promoting Judge Brett Kavanaugh to a justice, provides clues into how she might perform throughout the rest of Barrett’s fight for the same title this week.
On Tuesday, it became evident Harris was ready to use a similar method that she did with Kavanaugh, contrasting Ginsburg’s legacy of advancing women’s rights with Trump’s. She argued that allowing the president to have say in “the right to choose poses a threat to safe and legal abortion in our country.”
The style mirrored the past SCOTUS hearing. In one indelible instance in September 2018, Harris asked Kavanaugh if he could “think of any laws that give government the power to make decisions about the male body?,” to which he answered, “I'm happy to answer a more specific question,” before conceding, “I'm not thinking of any right now, senator.”
The line—pointed and plain—instantly created the sort of moment that aides and fans shared on social media to spark buzz about her prosecutorial approach to a highly partisan court fight unraveling under Trump.
Trump at the time called Harris “nasty to a level that was just a horrible thing” and, as recently as last week, labeled her a “monster” for factually taking Pence to task during their mutually agreed to debate.
Republican criticisms of Harris, both during her primary bid and as a member of the opposing party facing an election in three weeks, often rely on tropes about women of color seeking positions of power. Racist and sexist rhetoric by the president and others on the right have been some of the more overt ways that the GOP has sought to delegitimize the senator’s ascent within the party.
Harris has, nonetheless, regularly provided unflinching questioning during her freshman year in the Senate, playing up strategies from her past career as the top law enforcement official in the nation’s biggest state.
She has also had a hand in delivering pointed queries beyond those appointed to the highest court in the land. Two memorable examples occurred during oversight hearings featuring former Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the previous United States attorney general who angered the president for recusing himself from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian election meddling, and William Barr, his current AG.
Archival video shows a clear trend with Harris’ approach between committees. She tends to lean in, slightly, with her shoulders upright and enveloped in a blazer, generally remaining otherwise still. At times, she points with a writing utensil in her hand for emphasis.
“I don’t recall it,” Sessions said in a June 2017 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to Harris’ inquiry about whether or not he had previous conversations with Russians potentially involved in the investigation. “If I don’t qualify it you’ll accuse me of lying,” Sessions struggled. “So I need to be correct as best I can,” he said. “I’m not able to be rushed this fast. It makes me nervous.” The line became a favorite among Democrats.
With Barrett, Harris asked whether the judge knew about Trump’s prior remarks about “committing to nominate judges to strike down the Affordable Care Act,” which yielded a similar answer.
“I don’t recall,” Barrett said.