Democrats want White House hopefuls to cool it on Biden attacks

Democratic lawmakers warn that Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' Schumer won't meet with Trump's Supreme Court pick This week: Senate kicks off Supreme Court fight MORE (D-N.J.) and other White House hopefuls taking shots at front-runner Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE are playing with fire and could wind up helping President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate 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 FeinsteinThis week: Senate kicks off Supreme Court fight Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 Conservative group unveils ad accusing liberals of attacking Barrett's faith 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 ShaheenNew Hampshire poll finds Biden up 8 points over Trump Senate Democrats introduce bill to sanction Russians over Taliban bounties Trump-backed candidate wins NH GOP Senate primary to take on Shaheen 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 HarrisThe Memo: Debate or debacle? Biden will keep debating Trump, campaign says Joe Scarborough urges Biden: 'Do not do anymore debates' 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 SandersTrump, Biden clash over health care as debate begins Biden calls Trump a 'liar' and a 'clown' at first debate Biden mocks Trump campaign debate claims: 'I've got my earpiece and performance enhancers ready' 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 WarrenWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump's tax bombshell | More election drama in Pennsylvania | Trump makes up ground in new polls New Biden campaign ad jabs at Trump's reported 0 income tax payments 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 BennetOVERNIGHT ENERGY: House Democrats tee up vote on climate-focused energy bill next week | EPA reappoints controversial leader to air quality advisory committee | Coronavirus creates delay in Pentagon research for alternative to 'forever chemicals' Senate Democrats demand White House fire controversial head of public lands agency Next crisis, keep people working and give them raises 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 CarperEnergy innovation bill can deliver jobs and climate progress The conservative case for phasing out hydrofluorocarbons Democrat asks for probe of EPA's use of politically appointed lawyers 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 DurbinSupreme Court nominee gives no clues in GOP meeting Warren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' Conservative group unveils ad accusing liberals of attacking Barrett's faith 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 ButtigiegPete ButtigiegCindy McCain joins board of Biden's presidential transition team Billionaire who donated to Trump in 2016 donates to Biden The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - GOP closes ranks to fill SCOTUS vacancy by November 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 CoonsThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by JobsOhio - Trump's tax return bombshell Coons: 'Defies comprehension' why Trump continues push to 'strip away' protections for pre-existing conditions Two Judiciary Democrats say they will not meet with Trump's Supreme Court pick 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 HironoWarren won't meet with Barrett, calling Trump's nomination an 'illegitimate power grab' Schumer won't meet with Trump's Supreme Court pick Senate Democrats want to avoid Kavanaugh 2.0 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.