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Kamala Harris and the bipartisan infrastructure law

Surrounded by lawmakers of both parties and Vice President Kamala Harris, Joe Biden celebrated the biggest win of his presidency so far, signing into law the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill last month.

"It's a big deal," the president said, a reference to something he had said more than a decade ago as vice president, when then-President Obama signed his landmark health care law. 

President Biden Signs Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill
FILE: WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: President Biden (C) signs H.R. 3684, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, during ceremony on the South Lawn at the White House on November 15, 2021 in Washington, DC. Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images

Mr. Biden's turn as the second-in-command received largely positive reviews. Vice presidential scholar Joel K. Goldstein's assessment soon after Mr. Biden left office was that he had been "extraordinary," praising Mr. Biden's ability to exercise a high level of influence during both terms, with a broad portfolio that included the implementation of the Obama administration's stimulus plan and high-level negotiations with Hill Republicans over the budget. 

Often, vice presidents' effectiveness "depends upon acting in a way that conveys the perception internally that they're part of a team — not somebody out trying to, you know, trumpet their own horn," Goldstein told CBS News.

As Harris prepares to enter her second year in office, she faces political and policy headwinds — like multiple high-profile staff departures and the open-ended and somewhat intractable policy assignments she has been given. Advancing voting rights and addressing the root causes of migration at the southern border are almost certainly destined to be problems that last beyond her tenure in the job.

Lately, she has taken on a project that's more concrete: helping to tout the administration's signature infrastructure law. 

So, what did the vice president do to help pass it?

A lot — or not very much — depending on who you ask.

Multiple Republican congressional aides directly involved in negotiations of the bill's final framework tell CBS News that Harris had no involvement in the meetings on Capitol Hill, "where all the negotiations took place." The aides said that Harris participated in at least two "perfunctory" White House meetings.

"I'm sure she and her staff relayed their support for various things to Democratic negotiators, but she was not involved in any direct negotiations" an aide to a Republican senator involved in the negotiations said. 

White House officials and their allies tell a different story.

They characterize Harris as a behind-the-scenes player who quietly pushed several environmental provisions that she worked on as a senator: funding for electric school buses, combatting Western wildfires and droughts, and replacing lead water service lines.

As a senator, Harris introduced legislation addressing each of those issues, but none became law. For the duration of her Senate career, Republicans controlled the Senate and the White House. But Harris' allies said the failed bills formed the foundation of the environmental provisions in the infrastructure bill. 

"Because she was working on these topics in the Senate, she, at a tactical level, knows where members of our caucus and members of the caucus on the other side of the aisle are." Ali Zaidi, the deputy White House national climate adviser said. 

During negotiations, White House officials said Harris engaged with lawmakers at least 150 times through calls, meetings, and trips with members. Her relationships in the Senate — and especially with Republican members — are not nearly as deep as those of President Biden, who served in the body for 36 years and presided over it as vice president for eight.

There is a particular issue in the law that Democrats who talked with CBS News highlighted in discussing Harris' involvement. Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire and one of the original senators negotiating the measure, said in a statement to CBS News that Harris was a "key partner" in advancing funding for electric school buses.

The infrastructure law provides $5 billion over five years to wean the nation's school bus fleet off of fossil fuels.

"She described for people why this was so important that kids in our communities were being subjected to pollution from their own school buses," Washington Senator Patty Murray, of Washington, said of Harris. Some 25 million children rely on school buses to transport them to school every day, according to government data.

Murray became a co-sponsor of the "Clean School Bus Act" after Harris, who had introduced the bill, left the Senate. 

Congresswoman Jahana Hayes, Democrat of Connecticut, and author of the "Clean School Bus Act" in the House, said she and Harris discussed electric school buses during their first meeting in 2018.  Hayes told CBS News their conversations continued for the next three years, up until the bill passed.

"There were a few times that [funding for clean buses] was on the table, off the table." Hayes said. "But I'm confident that the only reason why the final text even made it into actual legislation is because it was something that was important to the vice president."

Democrats CBS News spoke to for this story painted a picture of a vice president who showed strong interest in issues familiar to her from her time as a California senator and as state attorney general. They even point to legislation she wrote that went directly into the final bill.

For example, Congressman Jared Huffman, Democrat of California, worked with Harris on wildfire and drought resiliency legislation during her time in the Senate. Huffman says elements of their work together were dropped into the final version of the bill.

"There was no House participation in those negotiations that produced the bipartisan infrastructure framework, but major elements of bills that we had developed together that were ready to go plugged into that deal, because they needed things that were pretty fully developed," Huffman said.

This week Harris has made two announcements related the the infrastructure law's implementation. On Thursday, she announced the administration's plan to accelerate the replacement of the millions of remaining lead pipes in the United States. Lead is a neurotoxin and can leach into drinking water when lead pipes corrode. Even low levels of exposure are linked to learning disabilities, hearing and nerve damage and other health risks. On Monday, she touted the establishment of a new office that will work to deploy EV infrastructure across the country.

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