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3 ways Democrats couldn’t escape Congress in Wednesday’s debate

Seven of the 10 candidates on stage have congressional experience

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand both touted their accomplishments in the Senate during Wednesday night’s debate. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The 10 Democrats on Wednesday’s debate stage were vying for the White House, but with seven of them having congressional experience, much of the evening came back to the legislative branch.

Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet all currently serve in the Senate. Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a four-term member of the House, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee previously served eight nonconsecutive terms in the House. Former Vice President Joe Biden spent 36 years in the Senate — plenty of time to accumulate a record that was the source of frequent attacks Wednesday night.

Only New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, businessman Andrew Yang and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro have never served in Congress (although Castro pointed out during the debate that his twin brother, Joaquin, serves in the House).

Wednesday’s debate underscored how some candidates are choosing to highlight their congressional experience, while others are ignoring it, instead touting local or state-level accomplishments. But with Biden the center of so many jabs, it was also a reminder of how congressional experience, particularly from decades ago, can be weaponized against candidates. 

1. Biden on defense

Biden foreshadowed the tone for the debate before it had even begun, telling Harris as they shook hands on stage, “Go easy on me, kid.”

Biden was referring to the pair’s first debate interaction last month, when Harris went after Biden on his record on busing. That topic, and many more issues from Biden’s past, came up again on Wednesday. Harris said Biden has “still failed to acknowledge that it was wrong to take the position that he took at that time” on busing and again criticized him for working with segregationist senators.

“Had those segregationists their way, I would not be a member of the United States Senate. Cory Booker would not be a member of the United States Senate,” Harris said. “And Barack Obama would not have been in the position to nominate [Biden] to the title he now holds.”

Booker took his own swipes at Biden over the former vice president’s work on anti-crime bills, arguing that policies Biden once proudly claimed authorship of have led to high rates of incarceration, especially among urban populations.

“We have treated issues of race and poverty, mental health and addiction with locking people up and not lifting them up,” Booker said.

Biden also came under fire for changing his positions in his latest bid for president, the third of his career.

“Why did it take so long, until you were running for president, to change your position on the Hyde amendment?” Harris asked Biden. The 1976 amendment, contained annually in appropriations bills, prohibits federal funds from being used to pay for abortions except in cases of rape or incest or where the life of the mother is in danger.

Biden was the only Democratic presidential candidate who opposed its repeal — until June. “Because there was not full federal funding for all reproductive services prior to this point,” he responded to Harris.

Gillibrand resurfaced a 1981 op-ed that Biden wrote, using it to argue that he had once opposed women working outside the home. In the piece, Biden was writing about his opposition to tax credits for daycare expenses for upper-income families. He wrote that Congress was “subsidizing the deterioration of the family.”

“Am I serving in Congress, resulting in the deterioration of the family because I had access to quality affordable daycare?” Gillibrand said, noting that she’s been her family’s primary wage-earner and caregiver and that she gave birth to her second son while she was serving in the House. Biden responded with a reminder that he was once a single parent and is aware of how much child care costs.

Without mentioning his name, Inslee took a swipe at Biden for supporting the 2002 authorization for the war in Iraq, which Inslee and then-Rep. Bernie Sanders, another contender who participated in Tuesday night’s debate, opposed.

“I was a relatively new member of Congress, and I made the right judgment because it was obvious to me that George Bush was fanning the flames of war,” Inslee said.

Biden admitted he’d made a “bad judgement” voting for the measure because he trusted President George W. Bush that the operation was limited to sending in U.N. inspectors.

“From the moment Shock and Awe started, from that moment, I was opposed to the effort and I was outspoken as much as anyone at all in the Congress and administration,” Biden said, defending his record.

2. To impeach or not to impeach

The first 10 candidates who faced off on Tuesday were not asked about whether President Donald Trump should be impeached, but the topic came up on Wednesday. What began as a question posed to Harris about whether she would advocate for her Justice Department to prosecute Trump after he left office quickly turned into a back-and-forth over whether Congress should begin impeachment proceedings.

So far, 117 House Democrats, including 10 in competitive districts, have called for an impeachment inquiry to begin. Democratic leaders have sought to quell those demands, noting that congressional investigations should continue.

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“The politics of this be damned,” said Booker, who noted for the Detroit audience that Michigan’s senior senator, Democrat Debbie Stabenow, recently joined him in calling for an impeachment inquiry.

“I believe that Congress should do its job,” Booker said.

But Bennet, the moderate Colorado senator, said the political consequences should not be dismissed. Bennet argued that if impeachment proceedings moved forward, Trump would surely be acquitted by a Republican-controlled Senate, allowing Trump to be able to campaign for re-election saying that Congress found him innocent.

Castro had a different approach.

“Conversely, if Mitch McConnell is the one that lets him off the hook, we are going to be able to say, ‘Well sure, they impeached him in the House, but his friend Mitch McConnell, Moscow Mitch, let him off the hook,’” he said. Castro used a moniker first deployed by former GOP Rep. Joe Scarborough on MSNBC this week to criticize the Senate majority leader’s opposition to election security bills.

McConnell was a foil at other points during the debate, particularly when Inslee pointed out that McConnell and Senate Republicans could stonewall a future Democratic president, even if Democrats flip the chamber. Inslee made the case for ending the filibuster, which is a shorthand for the 60-vote threshold required to end debate on legislation, and he challenged his rival Democrats who serve in the Senate to end it.

3. Check the record

Debates are a time to talk about past accomplishments, but only a few candidates chose to heavily tout their records in Congress.

Having won an upstate New York House district, Gillibrand frequently cited her electoral history to prove that she could take on Trump. And she specifically referenced several of her legislative priorities in Congress.

“As a freshman senator, I was told you couldn’t repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Even members of my own party told me it wasn’t convenient,” she said in her opening statement. “We stood up to the Pentagon and we got it done.” She also touted her leadership on providing health care for 9/11 first-responders. “Even when Congress turned its back on them, we kept fighting. Just last week, we made the 9/11 health bill permanent,” she said.

Staking out the moderate lane on stage, Bennet pointed to his congressional experience to break with his competitors on health care and immigration. He disagrees with decriminalizing entering the country illegally, for example, and touted his involvement in the so-called Gang of Eight. In 2013, the group of four Democrats and four Republicans helped negotiate a comprehensive immigration proposal that died in the GOP-controlled House.

“I wrote the immigration bill in 2013 with John McCain that passed the Senate with 68 votes,” Bennet said, name-checking the late GOP senator from Arizona.

On health care, Bennet also disagreed with most of his colleagues on stage, arguing that ending private health insurance will play into Trump’s hands. “I wrote the damn public option bill,” Bennet said, referring to the Medicare-X Choice Act he introduced in 2017.

Booker tended to talk more about his accomplishments as mayor of Newark than his work in the Senate, but he did tout his work on a recent criminal justice bill while going after Biden on the issue.

“If you want to compare records, and frankly I’m shocked that you do, I am happy to do that,” Booker told Biden Wednesday. “Because all of the problems that he is talking about, that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law that reverses the damage.”

Booker was a key Democrat on a criminal justice overhaul that became law in December. The legislation, known as the First Step Act, is one of the few sweeping bipartisan measures that Trump has signed into law.

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks while Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey listen during the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday in Detroit. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks while Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey listen during the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday in Detroit. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)