Harris makes the debt ceiling case to the American public

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WASHINGTON — Vice President Kamala Harris is taking on a larger role in the White House’s efforts to talk to the public about the need to raise the debt ceiling — but thus far there is no indication she will be involved in daily negotiations.

On Thursday, Harris pointedly criticized Republicans and urged what officials said were “thousands” of community leaders on a call to spread the word about the potential harms of a default. She was joined by Lael Brainard, the director of the National Economic Council.

“Congressional Republicans claim they are threatening default because they want to lower our nation’s debt,” Harris said. “Let’s be clear: For Republicans in Congress, this issue is not really about lowering our nation’s debt, because if they really cared about lowering our debt, they would not — they would not — also fight to protect trillions of dollars in Trump tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the biggest corporations.”

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The briefing, where Harris emphasized the potential economic consequences if the ceiling isn't lifted, with even the threat of a breach proving economically devastating, underscores an emerging role for her as the White House looks to deploy her to explain what many Americans see as a complicated economic issue, a senior administration official said.

“It is not some abstract policy debate,” Harris said Thursday. “You only need look back to 2011 to remember what it can mean right now. … By coming close to a default back then, prices in the stock market fell almost 20% for more than a year, millions of people lost money out of their retirement accounts, it became more difficult for both small and large businesses to secure loans, fill orders and hire new workers.”

She added: “By some estimates, there would be 1 million more jobs today in our nation had that not happened. … And that was without an actual default.” She dropped off the call for a brief period during her remarks, which an official attributed to technical difficulties.

The White House has struggled to rally concern from corporate America or voters — the kind of pressure Biden could use as leverage in negotiations with Republicans.

After having been noticeably absent at the start of the negotiations, Harris is being tasked with trying to amp up the level of national concern and make the case that the outcome could be dire if a deal isn't reached.

An empty chair next to President Joe Biden as he meets with House Kevin McCarthy in the Oval Office on May 9, 2023.  (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images)
An empty chair next to President Joe Biden as he meets with House Kevin McCarthy in the Oval Office on May 9, 2023. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP - Getty Images)

The senior official said the White House wants Harris to make the case about the potential for a global economic crisis that could affect hundreds of thousands of jobs, if not millions, as well as other aspects of American life, like retirement funds and homeownership rates.

As part of the plan, Harris will leave most of the negotiations with congressional Republicans to staffers, including Louisa Terrell, Shalanda Young and Steve Ricchetti, the three aides Biden designated to represent him in the talks with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s team, the official said. (Terrell is the White House legislative affairs director, Young is the budget director, and Ricchetti is counselor to the president.)

Harris, a former senator, has been increasingly visible in the White House's debt ceiling efforts after having not attended a meeting last week between Biden and the top four congressional leaders — there was an empty seat next to Biden where Harris traditionally sits in Oval Office meetings. This week, Harris was seated to the immediate right of the president at a second meeting with the same congressional leaders.

Asked why Harris wasn't at the first meeting but attended the second, the senior administration official said that it was a “joint decision” between Biden and Harris to have her attend this time and that she “should be in those meetings because of not only just what’s at stake, but because of the role that she plays in the partnership.” The official said Biden “values her input, her thoughts and her opinion.”

The official added that Harris has “used every opportunity to talk about the dangers and consequences of a Republican default and the real impact on the American people,” including doing a recent interview with local reporters in Atlanta.

Harris said Thursday’s briefing call included community leaders, labor leaders and state and local elected officials representing all 50 states and the territories.

The senior administration official said: “We’re convening a number of different leaders, representing a cross-section of organizations and groups and people, and we’re going to talk about what’s really at stake. Real people will be impacted by these decisions. And it’s important for the folks who are not just leading them but who they trust and who represent their best interests to understand those impacts.”

The official added that there is “underlying optimism” that Republicans and Democrats will “get a deal done.”

The U.S. is projected to exhaust all options to keep paying the country’s bills as early as June 1, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen repeated this week, giving Congress a closing timeline to reach a deal.

Jamal Simmons, who worked for a year as Harris' communications director, said deploying her as a messenger to the public and everyday Americans in the debt ceiling negotiations plays to her strengths and her reputation.

“Her skill from the Senate was in prosecuting a case against people,” Simmons said. “The thing she was most known for by most Americans from her time in the Senate were the Supreme Court hearings. And so people look to her for inspiration and for prosecuting an argument in the public eye. And that is the place where her strengths lie and where she is most useful to the administration.”

Simmons added that it is important to have Harris attend high-profile meetings like the debt ceiling negotiations because millions of Americans voted for both her and Biden and expect Harris, a Black woman who connects with key constituencies for Democrats, to be in those rooms, especially as the 2024 election nears.

“I always believe that Vice President Harris’ power lies in her appeal to regular Americans out in the country,” Simmons said. “Visually communicating that she’s a partner to the president is incredibly important to getting those voters animated to send them back to the White House.”

Biden, as vice president, often joined President Barack Obama in negotiations and meetings with congressional leaders. Biden, a longtime veteran of the Senate, was tasked with negotiating with Congress during the 2011 debt crisis. Harris, who doesn't have the same relationships in the Senate, hasn't been tasked with negotiating with lawmakers.

Biden “wants her input in this,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters this week. “She’s been part of this process throughout these conversations about the budget, about not defaulting.”

But while Harris has been and will continue to be a “partner” to Biden in the process, her late entry into the conversation with the “Big Four” leaders is indicative of a more measured role.

Two sources familiar with internal White House discussions couldn't say whether Harris would be part of future meetings.

Another source familiar with the talks said, “She’ll leave the negotiating to the negotiators.”

A source who has talked to people participating in the negotiations downplayed Harris’ role, calling her “a peripheral player at best.”

“It’s between Biden and McCarthy, with Ricchetti and Shalanda Young,” the source said.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com