Democrats celebrating Sen. Kamala Harris’s pick as their party’s vice presidential nominee cited her groundbreaking ancestry, her personal story and her work as a district attorney and later California attorney general.
But few found much to say about her current job, as California’s junior senator.
Over her three and a half years, she has quietly amassed one of the most liberal records in the chamber, while standing out as one of the least bipartisan members in terms of her willingness to work across the aisle with Republicans, according to analysts who study bill-writing patterns.
She has no laws to her name but has made a splash in committee hearings, where her confrontation with future Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh went viral, and where her clashes with Trump Cabinet officials have become a staple of Judiciary and Homeland Security committee meetings.
“I think she spent these four years running for president — now vice president — and had zero effect as a senator other than to be a clearly far-left partisan vote,” said David M. McIntosh, a former member of Congress and now president of the Club for Growth, a free-market advocacy group. “She’s one of the least bipartisan senators, if not the least bipartisan senator today, and that means she’s made no effort to try to work across the aisle to actually pass a bill.”
Club for Growth produces a scorecard for Congress and rates Ms. Harris at 13% — “In the basement,” Mr. McIntosh says. NumbersUSA, which pushes for restrictions on immigration, rates her at 0%.
But Planned Parenthood Action Fund, an abortion-rights yardstick, and the League of Conservation Voters, an environmental activism organization, each rates her at 100%, and the American Civil Liberties Union gives her an 86% rating.
Ms. Harris has been chief sponsor of two bills that cleared the Senate, one in the 115th Congress and the other in the current Congress. Both bills would have made the act of lynching a specific federal civil rights crime.
Neither has become law.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, has halted the push this year, arguing the legislation needed to be changed so a minor injury doesn’t net someone a 10-year prison sentence. Ms. Harris complained that he was being obstructionist.
Ms. Harris has gotten four non-binding resolutions through the Senate: one condemns racism, one celebrates the Buffalo Soldiers, one honors the Senate’s black staff caucus, and one condemned the 2019 attack on a synagogue in San Diego.
Jim Manley, who spent years on Capitol Hill working for former Democratic leader Harry Reid and the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, said Ms. Harris’s ability to produce was limited by the current environment. She’s been in the minority for all of her tenure, and the Senate has been mired in gridlock.
“As a Democrat I think she is an outstanding choice for VP — but as an old Senate guy, there is part of me that wishes she would have stayed in the Senate to become the outstanding senator that I think she would have become,” he said. “She has all the right tools to become a legislative power, but given how broken the Senate is she never really had a chance to shine there.”
He did praise her questioning of then-Judge Kavanaugh during his nomination hearing, saying she proved she’s “equally skilled at interrogating witnesses and providing some much-needed oversight of the current administration.”
President Trump, though, called Ms. Harris’s questions to the future justice “nasty.”
In one particular exchange in the Judiciary Committee, Ms. Harris seemed to suggest she had inside information about something untoward, demanding to know whether then-Judge Kavanaugh had discussed special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe with anyone at a particular law firm.
The judge replied he was “not remembering” any such discussion, but wanted to know who Ms. Harris thought he had talked with. She played coy, saying he seemed to have someone in mind.
Eventually, the judge gave her a firm “No,” and nothing further came of the matter.
Her questioning last year of Attorney General William P. Barr was more successful, when she got him to admit he hadn’t read all the evidence the special counsel had produced against Mr. Trump. She also put him on the hot seat over whether Mr. Trump had ever demanded an investigation into someone.
Ms. Harris also has been a harsh questioner of Department of Homeland Security officials, including at one 2018 hearing when she compared U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the KKK.
Hearings seem to be Ms. Harris’s best setting, playing to her experience as a former prosecutor.
That was also true of former Sen. John Kerry, according to his one-time Massachusetts seatmate, Kennedy. When asked by the Boston Globe why Mr. Kerry’s legislative record was thin after decades in the chamber, Kennedy said there were two types of senators: those who investigate, and those who legislate. Mr. Kerry, he said, was an investigator.
Mr. McIntosh, though, said in the case of Harris he would he would add a third category, “and that’s naked ambition, and she fits into that. … She hasn’t investigated, she hasn’t legislated.”
Ms. Harris has wielded her vote in the Senate in decidedly liberal fashion.
She has never voted for any of the omnibus spending bills that fund the government each year, and only once voted for the annual defense policy bill. That puts her among a small group of mostly liberal lawmakers.
Yet during this year’s defense debate she also voted against an effort by Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, to cut 10% from the Pentagon’s accounts and redirect the money to social programs such as health care. That vote saw her stand with the chamber’s Republicans and less-liberal Democrats.
In a statement later, she said she actually supported Mr. Sanders’ goal, but said “it must be done strategically” and his cuts weren’t careful enough.
Voteview.com, a site run by political scientists that rates lawmakers’ ideology based on their votes, ranks Ms. Harris as the second most liberal senator, trailing only Sen. Elizabeth Warren, over the last four years.
Using another yardstick, how often a lawmaker works on bills with a member of the other party, GovTrack.us ranks Ms. Harris as one of the three most liberal senators over the last five years for her inability to find Republicans she can work with.
She was ranked the most liberal senator for 2019 — a fact the Trump campaign has seized on — but given her schedule on the campaign trail, that year may not be the most representative.
The political scientists at the Lugar Center, which also rank senators for bipartisan tendencies dating back 30 years, say that of 250 senators who served over that time, Ms. Harris is the fifth most partisan to serve. Among active senators, that puts her just above Mr. Sanders — and just below Sen. Ted Cruz, the deeply conservative Texas Republican.
Indeed, the GOP lawmaker who most matches Ms. Harris on those indexes is Mr. Cruz.
Yet The New York Times this week labeled Ms. Harris a “pragmatic moderate.” Other news outlets dubbed her a “centrist,” a label rarely, if ever, applied to Mr. Cruz.
Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said there’s still a perception about Ms. Harris that lingers from her days as San Francisco’s prosecutor and later as California’s attorney general.
That has sparked some “skepticism” among the left, which he said likely accounts for the sense among some that she’s not as liberal.
“If you look at her entire voting record, she is very liberal, but if you focus on the law enforcement area, she has acted in more moderate ways,” Mr. West said.