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History was made in more ways than one when the new administration officially moved into the White House in January. With the election of Joe Biden as president, the U.S. welcomed its first woman and first woman of color to the second-highest office in the nation.

On the final episode of Insider Insights: 100 Days of Biden, we talk about Vice President Kamala Harris and her role going forward as not just VP, but the deciding vote in a Senate split 50/50. Host Lloyd Freeman, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Buchanan, talks with returning guest Liz Westbrook, Senior Advisor in Buchanan's Federal Government Relations practice in Washington, D.C., about Harris and what her priorities will be in the years ahead.

In this episode, Lloyd and Liz cover:

  • The biggest impacts Vice President Harris has already made in her first three months.
  • What her role as the tie-breaking vote in the split Senate means for Democrats’ ability to pass legislation over the next two years at least.
  • The powers of budget reconciliation and how the Vice President has a major role in that.
  • What responsibilities Vice President Harris may have in shaping immigration legislation and other priorities.
  • The unique dynamic of a young Vice President alongside the oldest person ever elected President.
  • The Vice President’s chances of being at the top of the Democratic ticket in 2024.

You can listen to Insider Insights: 100 Days of Biden in many places: on Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, and more.

Podcast Transcript

Lloyd Freeman: Hello, and welcome to the final episode of Insider Insights: 100 Days of Biden, the podcast from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. I am your host today, Lloyd Freeman, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Buchanan.

If you have not caught all of our first seven episodes yet, they are available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and plenty of other platforms. Each one has highlighted a different industry and the Biden Administration’s potential impact on it. I highly recommend you check them out. On today's episode, we welcome back my colleague Liz Westbrook, a Senior Advisor from Buchanan's Federal Government Relations team in Washington, D.C. We are going to talk about our nation's first woman and woman of color to hold the second highest office in the country, Vice President Kamala Harris.

Liz, welcome back to the podcast.

Liz Westbrook: Thank you for having me back.

Lloyd Freeman: We are just about to reach the namesake of our podcast – the 100th day of President Biden in office. But we cannot talk about the Biden administration without mention of his Vice President. Liz, over these first three months, what have been some of the biggest impacts the Vice President has had since entering The White House? 

Liz Westbrook: The first major impact is just her existence as our first woman and woman of color to serve as Vice President. That has been emotional and inspirational to see her break that penultimate glass ceiling. It meant a lot to me; it meant a lot to my little nieces, who have been watching even has kids looking for this sort of representation. So, that is number one. Her existence is radically impactful.

Second, and this is something we did not know until well after election night with the Georgia Special Elections, but we have a Senate that is a 50/50 spilt between Republicans and Democrats. So, because we have a Democratic executive branch, the Democrats now control the Senate, and Vice President Harris becomes the critical tie-breaking vote on issues with no bipartisan agreement.

Lloyd Freeman: So Liz, let’s delve a bit deeper into that. You mention there is a 50/50 Senate spilt, and so Vice President Harris will be the deciding vote on a majority of issues over the next two years at least. How do you see that playing out? I cannot imagine she would go against her democratic colleagues in congress.

Liz Westbrook: There are conservative members of the Senate and Democratic Caucus that will jeopardize that 51-50 vote but not the Vice President. Especially because basically anything that can be passed 51-50 by simple majority is going to be legislation that is being moved via a procedure called reconciliation. And as the Senate only gets a few bites at reconciliation a year, any legislation proceeding through that process is going to be a major priority package for the President and for the whole party.

Lloyd Freeman: Much has actually been made about this budget reconciliation process and the powers that it grants Congress and The White House while avoiding the filibuster. Educate us a bit on that. How often can this process be done? Are the Democrats limited here? What does the Vice President have to say?

Liz Westbrook: So, Democrats are limited, yes, but exciting recent news for Democrats is that they are less limited than previously believed.

Basically, because of the current rules around the filibuster, most legislation requires 60 votes to pass the Senate. However, back in the 1970s, this process through reconciliation came up through the Congressional Budget Act. Actually, back then as a means to curve deficit spending, something that was considered so critical we needed a way to not get bogged down by filibustering and procedural maneuvering. So, Democrats were already optimistic coming into this Congress because, historically, you get one crack at budget reconciliation per fiscal year. But thanks to budget back logs and legislative back logs over the last year, they were actually going to get to do it twice this year. And just in the past couple of weeks, the Senate Parliamentary ruled on a question from the Democrats which was, “Can you revise an already-passed budget through reconciliation?” The answer was yes.

So, what that basically boils down to is that Democrats get to use reconciliation three more times this Congress. They already used it to pass the American Rescue Plan. That was the last COVID-19 bill. That means the Administration is going to have to work with congressional Democrats to determine what priorities they want to use this power to pass. And ultimately, it will mean the Vice President is going to be the deciding vote a few more times, more than anyone initially thought she would over the next two years. Then in 2022, we are going to have midterm elections, and it is likely that the makeup of the Senate will change. Whether Republicans or Democrats are in control, I would not expect to see a 50/50 split anymore in 2023, but you never know. We could see that, but generally over the next two years she is going to be that deciding vote at least a few more times.

Lloyd Freeman: Now that we are nearing that 100-day mark, it can be pretty easy to forget, but the President and the Vice President were pretty big rivals on the debate stage during the primaries. I recall their debate exchange was quite viral. Now they are joined together in The White House. On what issues do you think President Biden and the Vice President differ the most on? How do you think these differences are going to shake out over the next few years?

Liz Westbrook: Yeah, who can forget her powerful response to then-candidate Biden recounting her experience with busing as a child. I think for the most part, what happens on a debate stage stays there. That was a massive primary field, and I think there is actually less daylight between most of the candidates, not all, but most. That includes more similarities between Biden and Harris then most people might think, especially after a heated primary.

I also think President Biden and Vice President Harris are really pragmatic politicians and they are more focused on the art of the possible that comes up a lot in healthcare, during the primaries, there was this tension between Medicare for all, and other options. I think they are kind of on the same page there, and I think that page is more of what can we actually do with this divided 50/50 splits in the Senate and what is it possible to actually pass. I hope the President will take time to really listen to the diverse cabinet they have formed on issues that he does not have as much experience with, like criminal justice reform and that sort of thing.

Lloyd Freeman: The Biden administration is going to approach the issue of immigration much differently from the previous administration. And President Biden has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris with leading these efforts. What would the Vice President’s role look like in this regard? What are her priorities at the border?

Liz Westbrook: Since the announcement that she would be spearheading this immigration effort, the Biden Administration, including her own team, has clarified that she will not be overseeing anything on the border. But she is going to be leading this international effort with Mexico and the countries that comprise Central America’s Northern Triangle, which is Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. And also in the last week, we have seen the administration backtrack, actually twice, on a campaign promise they made to increase the refugee cap Trump had drastically lowered. It was a campaign promise to increase that number again. Then they said they were not going to increase it, and there was a lot of push back on that. So, as of now, they have resolved to increase the number of refugees that will be granted entrance into the United States this year.

All of that is to say it seems a little bit discombobulated from the outside. And I think there is this tension between Biden’s, I think, genuine desire for a more humane approach with the current situation and trying to untangle pretty harsh policies leftover from the last Administration, and trying to manage all of that during a global pandemic. Ultimately, I think Harris’s role is going to be more of a diplomatic one as the administration seeks to address the drivers of migration in those Central American countries. It is a politically dangerous role to be leading on immigration. But I think it is another example of how powerful the symbolism is here as the Vice President – she is the daughter of immigrants, and you can imagine how this role might be really personal for her. That desire for that humane and empathetic approach to immigration, I think, is going to be served by her own personal story.

Lloyd Freeman: Liz, you have mentioned at ton, and the Vice President certainly has a full plate. It's only been 100 days so far, but are there any other projects you expect the Vice President to lead?

Liz Westbrook: Well, I think she is going to have her hands full with the Senate and immigration and the pandemic for a while. But eventually, I hope we will see something kind of akin to Biden’s own cancer moonshot project. That’s something that she is really passionate about. Congress has already taken a stab at this and policing reform. I would think given her history as a prosecutor she would probably get involved on those issues.

We are also seeing a lot right now about how women have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. So, maybe she will help to lead efforts to make up for some of that lost ground. I know that’s something that is important to her. I think it is going to take a little bit of time for whatever that sort of passion project is to emerge. I do expect us to see something in the next coming years.

Lloyd Freeman: And not only is Kamala Harris the first woman to become Vice President, this entire administration and again everything it represents is bucking all of the traditional trends of Vice Presidents being older or maybe even having more experience than the President of the United States. What does this mean for her career going forward?

Liz Westbrook: I hope that it means the Democratic Party, with its aging leadership, is investing in building a younger pipeline. It has to be an interesting dynamic for Harris serving as Vice President to a man that held that same role for eight years. But Biden has said he wants her to be the last person in the room with him before making big decisions, just as he was to President Obama. So, in that way, I think we will see a real teamwork approach. While she will undoubtedly learn a lot from serving with a man who has served in D.C. for over 40 years, she has a wealth of applicable experience too. That’s what I hope – that it means a real team with different backgrounds to bring together going forward.

Lloyd Freeman: So, she comes with experience. She’s bringing even more leadership. She absolutely has the impact. So the million-dollar question is Liz, do you expect to see Kamala Harris to be on top of the Democratic ticket in 2024?

Liz Westbrook: I do. Or, let me say, I do not expect Joe Biden to be the top of the ticket. I know he just said he expected to run again, but what else could he possibly say to that sort of question? I hope this will be a productive four years for him. I hope he will accomplish some big goals. And then, I hope he will just get to enjoy his golden years with his family.

Vice President Harris is currently the most obvious candidate if Biden does not run again, though, a lot can happen in the next few years. Having to tackle immigration could leave her with political battle scars depending on how it goes. But presently, I do believe we will have a nonincumbent at the top of the ticket for both parties. She makes the most sense right now.

Lloyd Freeman: Liz, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast today and for sharing just a bit of your expertise and insight in to what the office of the Vice President is prioritizing and how things may look very differently for the Democrats in 2024.

To hear all past episodes of this podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen in. Additionally, to hear past and future episodes of my Buchanan podcasts, Dimensions of Diversity, where we host frank conversations with leaders all across the world of workplace diversity, please follow this link.

For Insider Insights: 100 Days of Biden, I am Lloyd Freeman with my colleague, Liz Westbrook of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. Thanks for listening.