Biden defends civil rights record after clash with Harris

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenTrump denies telling Bolton Ukraine aid was tied to investigations Former senior Senate GOP aide says Republicans should call witnesses Title, release date revealed for Bolton memoir MORE defended his civil rights record Friday after a bruising exchange with Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden leads 2020 pack in congressional endorsements Harris on 2020 endorsement: 'I am not thinking about it right now' Panel: Is Kamala Harris a hypocrite for mulling a Joe Biden endorsement? MORE (D-Calif.) during Thursday night’s primary debate, when Harris highlighted Biden's past stance on school busing and recent comments about working with segregationist senators. 

“I know and you know, I fought my heart out to ensure that civil rights and voting rights, equal rights are enforced everywhere,” Biden told the Rainbow PUSH Coalition convention, hosted by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“I want to be absolutely clear about my record and position on racial justice, including busing. I never, never, never ever opposed voluntary busing. And that’s a program that Senator Harris participated in, and it made a difference in her life,” he said.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I did support federal action to support root causes of segregation in our schools and our communities, including taking on the banks and redlining and trying to change the way in which neighborhoods were segregated,” he added. “In fact, I cast the deciding vote in 1974 against an amendment called the Gurney Amendment, which would have banned the right of the federal courts to use busing as a remedy.”

Biden was on defense Friday after he and Harris clashed the previous night when she slammed his recent remarks recalling a sense of "civility" working with segregationist Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) in the 1970s.

Harris also blasted Biden's past opposition to busing black students to predominantly white schools, describing how she herself benefited from school busing as a child.

“I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” she told Biden on Thursday night. “But I also believe, and it’s personal and I was actually very — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”

“On this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats, we have to take it seriously, we have to act swiftly,” she added when discussing busing.

Harris on Friday doubled down on her criticism of Biden, who has led nationals polls since formally entering the White House race in April. Harris said the former vice president's "nostalgia" for working with segregationist senators decades ago was "hurtful" and "misplaced."

"The characterization and the nostalgia about who they were I find to be misplaced, and it was hurtful to me to hear that they would be nostalgic about people who if they had their way I would not serve in the United States Senate," she said on MSNBC.

"On the heels of the history of extreme pain and damage, not to mention death, you have to draw the line," she added.

Biden sought to counter the attacks in the debate, saying he opposed busing ordered by the Department of Education but supported allowing federal courts to intervene in the issue. On Friday, he continued to underline his efforts with former President Obama, who remains popular in the Democratic base, saying they worked together to expand civil rights.

“And by the way, with all due respect, I say to Chicagoans and everyone: My president gets much too little credit for all that he did — he was one of the great presidents of the United States of America. And I'm tired of hearing about what he didn't do. This man had a backbone like a ram rod,” Biden said.

As the crowded primary field’s frontrunner, Biden was expected to be the target of attacks from the nine other Democrats on stage Thursday night. However, Harris’s attacks seeking to portray the 77-year-old former vice president as out of touch with an increasingly diverse base quickly left a dent and emerged as the debate's most significant moment.

In an attempt to pivot away from his political past, Biden briefly went on offense against Harris on Friday, saying her attacks during a packed primary debate that covered a litany of topics oversimplified his record.

“I heard and I listened to, and I respect Senator Harris,” he said, arguing that “we all know that 30 seconds to 60 seconds on a campaign debate exchange can't do justice to a lifetime commitment to civil rights.”

“The discussion in this race today shouldn't be about the past,” Biden added. “We should be talking about how we can do better. How we can move forward.”

Updated: 3:20 p.m.