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A Look At Kamala Harris' Career As A U.S. Senator

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Joe Biden is following in the footsteps of his former boss, President Obama, in picking a former rival as his running mate. But before Kamala Harris ran for president and challenged Biden on the debate stage, she was the junior senator from California. Well, she's still the junior senator from California, and it's in that role that she has made a name for herself as an aggressive questioner in Senate committee rooms. We're going to talk about Harris' Senate career and how that career has positioned her for this moment with NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell.

Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: So Kamala Harris has only been Senator Harris for about 3 1/2 years - not so long in the grand scheme of Senate careers. How has she used her time there so far?

SNELL: You know, not only is it not a lot of time in Senate time, but it's also time spent in the minority where it's notoriously difficult to get legislation passed. You know, her very first speech on the Senate floor was all about the DREAM Act, and that's the legislation to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who are brought to the country as children. And that has been kind of a central issue for her. She also works on justice-related issues like due process for immigrants. And that police reform bill that passed the House earlier this summer, she was a major figure in that. You know, at the same time, she was one of the main sponsors of a bill to make lynching a federal crime. Here's how she talked about the convergence of those issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: Black lives have not been taken seriously as being fully human and deserving of dignity. And it should not require a maiming or torture in order for us to recognize a lynching when we see it and recognize it by federal law.

SNELL: So those are major issues for her. And, you know, she has been criticized for her background as a tough-on-crime attorney general back in California. But supporters say her record in the Senate has really been focused on justice and due process.

KELLY: Speaking of the background that propelled her to the Senate, among other past lives, she was a prosecutor. How she used that experience?

SNELL: You know, it has given her a reputation as a person who will ask direct and pointed questions. I'm thinking about the confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, now Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. She asked him to address specific abortion-related cases and whether or not they were correctly decided. She also got into a contentious exchange with him over his insistence that the investigation into allegations of his past sexual misconduct was a witch hunt. You know, that got a lot of national attention. And she - you know, her tough questioning really did frustrate President Trump, and it's something he's brought up repeatedly. He's called her treatment of Kavanaugh nasty, which is a term he has typically reserved for women.

KELLY: So that is how the president says he sees her. What about how her colleagues in the Senate see her, Kelsey? As somebody who has walked those halls at Capitol Hill and watched a lot of Senate hearings, how is she perceived there?

SNELL: You know, I've talked to a lot of her colleagues, Democrats and Republicans, and they say she's a very active member on the committees she works on. She does Intelligence and Judiciary and Homeland Security. People say she's the kind of member who does her homework, and she's a person who really wants to understand policy. They say she's tried to find bipartisan co-sponsors when she could, though we know that that is often difficult in Congress. They point to things like election security and maternal health. Though, I will say a major criticism that I've heard is that she doesn't have much of a track record of actually passing laws. Though, it is actually a tale of legislating in the Trump era writ large. It's hard to get legislation passed right now, and it hasn't really been the story of this Congress in general. So she works on some very sought-after committees, and it's given her a really big opportunity to be in the mix on issues like immigration that would be very important to the American story no matter who is president.

KELLY: So pull it all together for us. What does her Senate career tell us about what kind of vice presidential candidate she's going to be?

SNELL: Well, as we've said, we know she's not afraid of conflict and that she's direct and known for her follow-ups like we saw in primary debates where she was criticizing her running mate, Joe Biden, you know. And she's got a quick and ready response. I think a good example of her using that technique in the Senate was when she was questioning Attorney General William Barr. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRIS: Attorney General Barr, has the president or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?

WILLIAM BARR: I wouldn't...

HARRIS: Yes or no.

BARR: Could you repeat that question?

HARRIS: I will repeat it.

SNELL: So you hear there her kind of catching him off guard and moving him into a place where he had to come up with a response. And she's not afraid to step in if someone appears to be filibustering or answering insufficiently. So I expect to see more of that when she debates Vice President Mike Pence in the fall.

KELLY: Thank you, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thank you.

KELLY: Our congressional correspondent, Kelsey Snell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.