Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks

Democratic lawmakers warn that Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerWorking Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 Five top 2020 Democrats haven't committed to MSNBC climate forum Progressive tax-the-rich push gains momentum MORE (D-N.J.) and other White House hopefuls taking shots at front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: NY Times story sparks new firestorm over Kavanaugh Top Sanders adviser: 'He is a little bit angry' Working Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 MORE are playing with fire and could wind up helping President TrumpDonald John TrumpTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report US service member killed in Afghanistan Pro-Trump website edited British reality star's picture to show him wearing Trump hat MORE win reelection.

While there are disagreements about the former vice president in the Senate Democratic Caucus, Democratic senators are rising to his defense after Booker demanded Biden apologize for recounting his collegial relationship with two segregationist former senators, James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.).

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Lawmakers fear the 2020 Democratic presidential primary field is becoming a circular firing squad, with Trump winding up as the beneficiary of internecine fighting.

“I think everybody is picking on him, press as well as others. He’s the front-runner so he’s the one to shoot down, so to speak,” said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinTrump court pick sparks frustration for refusing to answer questions This week: Congress returns for first time since mass shootings GOP senators object to White House delaying home-state projects for border wall MORE (D-Calif.), who served with Biden for years in the Senate.

“I think it’s a little unexpected, I don’t think he has figured for this,” she said of the attacks from fellow Democrats, namely Booker tacitly calling into question Biden’s commitment to civil rights.

Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenOvernight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine Defense spending bill advances over Democratic wall objections Democrats ramp up calls to investigate NOAA MORE (D-N.H.), who represents a key early primary state, said, “I think it’s not helpful to Democrats to attack each other at this stage.”

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) said the real “point” of Biden’s comments was that “when you’re sitting next to a Senate colleague, especially someone who at the time was in his own party, you’ve got to work together. You’ve got to figure out and find some common ground.”

Biden has come under harsh criticism from other presidential candidates, especially Booker, one of only three African American senators, for touting his collegial relationship with Eastland and Talmadge, who opposed civil rights and racial integration.

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Speaking at a fundraising event in New York on Tuesday, Biden imitated Eastland’s Southern drawl and reminisced, “He never called me boy, he always called me son.”

That comment drew fire from Booker, who demanded Biden apologize and admonished him by saying, “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’”

Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisChamber of Commerce argues against Democratic proposals for financial transaction taxes Warren proposes new restrictions, taxes on lobbying Five top 2020 Democrats haven't committed to MSNBC climate forum MORE (D-Calif.), who is also African American, said Biden’s comment “concerns me deeply” and noted that if Eastland and Talmadge had prevailed “I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate.”

She said “to coddle the reputations of segregationists” is “just misinformed and it’s wrong.”

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersChamber of Commerce argues against Democratic proposals for financial transaction taxes Top Sanders adviser: 'He is a little bit angry' Working Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 MORE (I-Vt.) also called for Biden to apologize, tweeting: “I agree with Cory Booker. This is especially true at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals.”

Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's 12:30 Report: NY Times story sparks new firestorm over Kavanaugh Working Families Party endorses Warren after backing Sanders in 2016 Warren proposes new restrictions, taxes on lobbying MORE (D-Mass.) said, “It’s never OK to celebrate segregationists. Never.”

The sharp rebukes seemed to catch Biden by surprise. On Wednesday, he insisted he had nothing to apologize for.

“Apologize for what? Cory should apologize to me,” he said of Booker.

That drew criticism from another presidential candidate, Sen. Michael BennetMichael Farrand BennetWarren proposes new restrictions, taxes on lobbying The Hill's 12:30 Report: House panel approves impeachment powers Burden in tonight's debate is on Democratic realists MORE (D-Colo.), who said Wednesday that Biden “should apologize.”

“He certainly shouldn’t be asking Cory Booker for an apology,” Bennet said.

It’s not lost on Senate Democrats defending Biden, however, that Booker is stuck at about 2 percent in national polls and needs to generate more attention for his campaign.

A Senate Democrat who requested anonymity to comment candidly on Booker’s sharp criticism called it “a cheap shot.”

“I think everybody’s shooting because that elevates, they think, themselves, but I also think it has detriment to it because we’re in the same party. What can happen is you can so weaken the front-runner, you may take his place but you may be weakened by it too,” the lawmaker said. “So my view is, don’t snipe at your people. Run your own race.”

Other Democrats are trying to step in and call a timeout.

Sen. Tom CarperThomas (Tom) Richard CarperLawmakers grill manufacturers over 'forever chemicals' contamination EPA ordered to set stronger smog standards America is in desperate need of infrastructure investment: Senate highway bill a step in the right direction MORE (D-Del.), who has endorsed Biden, said the criticism was “not well founded.”

“I have great affection for other Democrats running for the party’s nomination for the president, but with all due respect, Joe Biden has done more to advance the cause of civil rights in his lifetime than all the other candidates combined,” he said.

“His commitment to working across the aisle has not diminished in any way his commitment to advancing the civil rights of all people,” Carper added.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick DurbinRichard (Dick) Joseph DurbinSenators struggle to get spending bills off ground as shutdown looms Trump defends push to ban flavored e-cigarettes: Let's 'keep young children from Vaping!' Overnight Defense: Dems grill Trump Army, Air Force picks | House chair subpoenas Trump Afghanistan negotiator | Trump officials release military aid to Ukraine MORE (Ill.) said he didn’t understand the backlash against Biden.

“I keep asking people tell me a little bit more about this comment. What I heard is he said, ‘I sat across the table from people I disagreed with on key issues but we managed to work together,’” Durbin said.

Durbin noted that Biden often tells the story that he got into politics years ago out of a desire to push civil rights.

“It was all about civil rights. He came here as a senator, determined to do something on civil rights. I have no question about this man’s commitment to civil rights,” Durbin said.

Asked about disagreements among Democrats about the presidential race, Durbin said there’s “more to come” and cited his disagreements with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPeter (Pete) Paul ButtigiegFive top 2020 Democrats haven't committed to MSNBC climate forum Abrams helps launch initiative to train women activists, organizers This is how Democrats will ensure Trump's re-election MORE’s (D) criticisms of former President Obama’s foreign policy agenda.

Durbin said the way for Democrats to manage these disagreements is “to try be respectful about it.”

“You don’t characterize someone as an evil person because you disagree on a certain issue,” he said.

Sen. Christopher CoonsChristopher (Chris) Andrew CoonsDemocratic senator: Attacks on Saudi oil refineries 'may call for military action against Iran' Senator asked FBI to follow up on new information about Kavanaugh last year The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation MORE (D-Del.), who has endorsed Biden, warned that further attacks on the front-runner by Booker and other candidates could wind up helping Trump win reelection.

“It doesn’t help our cause as Democrats who hope for a next administration that is Democrat to spend time going back and forth,” he said. “To the extent we get into endless internecine back and forth, that is really harmful to the cause of defeating Donald Trump in 2020.”

Other Democrats, however, say it would be helpful if Biden would steer clear of making comments likely to spark controversy. 

“I wished Joe had used other people,” Jones, the Democratic senator from Alabama, said of Biden holding up Eastland and Talmadge as colleagues with whom he has worked collegially. “Coming from Alabama, I’m pretty sensitive about that, for sure.”

Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoOvernight Health Care: Juul's lobbying efforts fall short as Trump moves to ban flavored e-cigarettes | Facebook removes fact check from anti-abortion video after criticism | Poll: Most Democrats want presidential candidate who would build on ObamaCare Lawmakers urge DNC to name Asian American debate moderator Democratic senator on possibility of Trump standing up to the NRA: 'That's just such BS' MORE (D-Hawaii) said, “We need to defeat Trump, that is a major goal for all of us.” 

She added that Biden will “need to contend with the consequences” of what she called the “unforced error of a gaffe.”

Asked whether Biden should apologize, Hirono said “he needs to bear the consequences of his unforced error.”

“One hopes he’ll stop doing that,” she added.