Wrote the bill, read the bill: Lawmakers dominate Democratic debate

All but three of the candidates on Thursday's debate stage have served in Congress

Democratic presidential hopefuls Former Vice President Joe Biden, center, speaks as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, left, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren listen during the third Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season hosted by ABC News in partnership with Univision at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas on Thursday. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Although the 10 Democratic presidential candidates in Thursday night’s debate talked about the importance of unity, they spent plenty of time trying to one-up each other with their own congressional records.

The debate stage was stacked with current or former members of Congress: only businessman Andrew Yang, former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg of Indiana have never served in Congress.

Amidst the sniping over health care plans and the proclamations about having been the first to sponsor pieces of legislation, the candidates also had some kind words for each other. California Sen. Kamala Harris and Castro both praised Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for getting the Democratic Party to a place where “Medicare for All” is now part of many candidates’ platforms. “Take credit, Bernie,” Harris said.

Many candidates made a point of praising former President Barack Obama on health care, too. Two of them invoked the late Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, with Harris recalling the moment he voted against the GOP plan to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren name-dropped McCain in her answer about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, saying that she’d traveled there with him.

There were plenty of commonalities — on the need to pass stricter gun control legislation and tackle climate change, for example — and even on the need to “find common ground.” But there were key moments when each of the candidates who has served in Congress tried to use their legislative and political experience to make the case that they are the best suited to be the Democratic presidential nominee.

Who wrote the bill?

Thursday’s debate, like others before it, started with a lengthy exchange over health care policy and the best way to achieve universal coverage. That discussion came with candidates boasting about what they had done to address the problem.

Former Vice President Joe Biden framed the health care debate as a struggle between two Democratic figures. “The senator says she’s for Bernie. Well, I’m for Barack,” Biden said, referring to Warren and her support for Medicare for All. Biden supports strengthening the 2010 health care law passed under the Obama administration.

Responding to Biden, Sanders stated the obvious: “I wrote the damn bill.” Sanders has authored Medicare for All legislation, which three of his fellow senators who are running for president have co-sponsored.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s trying to run as more of a moderate, is not one of them.

“While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill,” she said, citing “page 8” of the legislation to explain her reservations about ending private insurance. “I don’t think that’s a bold idea, I think that’s a bad idea,” she said.

In a more collegial moment, Klobuchar also touted her efforts with Sanders to try to allow importation of prescription drugs from Canada to lower costs for Americans.

More bills and more votes

It wasn’t just health care where the lawmakers drew on their records in Congress. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker once again touted his role in the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice overhaul that President Donald Trump signed into law in December.

During a discussion about curbing gun violence, Klobuchar called on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to take up House-passed gun control bills and also act on her legislation to prevent convicted stalkers and people who have abused their partners from buying guns.

“I will tell you this — what unites us is that right now on Mitch McConnell’s desk are three bills: universal background checks, closing the Charleston loophole and passing my bill to make sure that domestic abusers don’t get AK-47s,” Klobuchar said.

Lawmakers also drew on their congressional experience during debates on foreign policy. Warren said that when she traveled to Afghanistan she was asking the same questions on the ground that she asks as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“Show me what winning looks like — tell me what it looks like,” Warren wanted to know about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. She later added, “No one can describe it.”

Just two of the seven candidates onstage with experience in Congress were serving when the authorization of military force in Iraq was approved.

Biden, who was a Delaware senator at the time, referenced his vote in support of the Iraq War, saying, “I should have never voted to give [President George W.] Bush the authority to go in.”

Sanders, who voted against the war when he was in the House, responded to Biden, “One of the big differences between you and me — I never believed what [Vice President Dick] Cheney and Bush said about Iraq.”

“You are right,” Biden responded.

Campaign experience

Except for Yang, all of these candidates have run for office before. Harris and Booker on Thursday night both went deep into their campaign experience — not for Senate, but for their first political offices.

As the debate wrapped up, the candidates were asked to recount a professional setback. Harris noted that she has faced skepticism in each of her campaigns.

“Every office I have run for, whether it be district attorney or attorney general, I was told each time it can’t be done,” the California Democrat said. “They said nobody like you has done it before, you are — nobody is ready for you.”

That was the case for her first statewide race, when she ran for attorney general in 2010. Even Democrats didn’t believe Harris could win, with one Democratic operative saying “a woman who is a minority, who is anti-death penalty, who is district attorney of wacky San Francisco” couldn’t be elected as the state’s top cop. Harris went on to win by less than 1 percentage point.

Booker often talks about his time in Newark, N.J., when he’s campaigning. Soon after moving to the city as a law student, he ran for city council, defeating a longtime incumbent in 1998.

His next race, however, wasn’t as successful — and that’s the one he talks more about.

“My biggest professional setback is embarrassing because a lot of folks know about it,” Booker said Thursday night. He ran for mayor in 2002, coming up short against the legendary Sharpe James. Booker casts his experience going up against a powerful Democratic machine as proof that he’s ready to take on Trump.

He made sure to name drop the Oscar-nominated documentary made about that campaign, called “Street Fight.”

“And here’s a bit of advice to everybody. If you’re going to have a spectacular failure, have a documentary team there to capture it,” he said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.