Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren will finally share a presidential debate stage Thursday night in Houston.
The third Democratic primary debate features 10 candidates vying for the party’s presidential nomination, but perhaps the most anticipated matchup will be between the former vice president and the Massachusetts senator. During the first two rounds of debates this summer, Biden and Warren were slotted on separate nights.
But that doesn’t mean they haven’t faced off before, even if not as 2020 candidates.
Nearly 15 years ago, a years-long feud between Biden and Warren reached a climax during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Biden, then a Delaware senator and chair of the committee, was a key supporter of a bill that would make it harder for Americans to declare personal bankruptcy, in an attempt to crack down on perceived abuse of the system. Warren, then a Harvard Law professor, had spent years publicly fighting the bill and even calling out Biden. She argued that the legislation would hurt working class families and didn’t address the root causes of rising bankruptcy rates.
On Feb. 10, 2005, Warren was called to testify before the Senate and make her argument to Biden in person. Earlier this year, Mother Jones dug up the archived footage of the hearing — clipping the most contentious exchange between the two future presidential primary opponents.
“I find it outrageous, such a statement,” Biden said, pressing Warren to explain an earlier statement that Delaware’s bankruptcy laws were unfair to working-class citizens.
Warren argued that average employees “literally” couldn’t afford to travel to Delaware and hire local counsel, which was required by the state’s law, if their home-state employer chose to file for bankruptcy in Delaware.
“That effectively cuts thousands of small employees, pensioners, and local trade creditors out of the bankruptcy process,” she said.
But that was besides the point of the hearing.
Biden moved on to the bankruptcy legislation Warren had so fiercely opposed. Taking her argument that rising health care costs were the main driver of increased personal bankruptcy filings, the then-senator questioned why the federal government shouldn’t be addressing that problem, rather than allowing individuals in financial distress to escape debts to those they owed money, such as banks and credit card companies.
“That is what confuses me about your arguments, Professor Warren,” he said.
“They are very compelling, they are literally true, but in a sense they beg the question,” Biden went on. “It seems to me that the federal government should be seeing to it that every American is put in a position where their health care costs are such that if, in fact, they have these extraordinary expenses, it is the social responsibility of the community to help them, as opposed to the social responsibility of the particular doctor or the particular bank that lent the money or the particular creditor who has put forward money, assuming there was any ability to pay.”
Warren agreed that the government should be working to make health care more affordable and decrease the number of bankruptcies. But the government hadn’t done anything about that yet.
“Until we fix the broken health care finance system, those families have to turn somewhere,” Warren said. “And that means now they turn as a last-ditch effort to the bankruptcy courts.”
Biden pointed out that effectively meant that individuals filing for bankruptcy “were asking the people that they borrowed money from to pay for their health
“Isn’t that literally correct?” he asked
“It is literally correct that the costs of a broken health care system are borne throughout the economy,” Warren replied.
Biden suggested it was somewhat unfair to force creditors to pay the costs of a “broken system.” Warren agreed, but said smaller companies — not to mention individuals — did not have the financial capacity to absorb those losses. On the other hand, she said credit card companies did, many of whom charged such high rates (or usury rates) that they had already recouped the money they lent.
“Maybe we should talk about usury rates, then,” Biden said. “Maybe that is what we should be talking about, not bankruptcy.”
“Senator, I will be the first,” Warren said. “Invite me.”
“I know you will, but let’s call a spade a spade,” Biden said. “Your problem with credit card companies is usury rates from your position. It’s not about the bankruptcy bill.”
But, again, Warren pointed out that the government should then do something about usury rates first.
“If you are not going to fix that problem, you can’t take away the last shred or protection from these families,” she said.
“I got it, OK,” Biden relented. “You are very good, Professor.”
His remark — and apparent concession — immediately drew laughs from the hearing room. However, the bankruptcy bill did go on to pass in the Senate, with Biden voting yes, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush later that year.
Biden’s team has since argued that he worked to moderate a bill that was destined to pass the Republican-controlled Senate; the GOP held a 55-seat majority in the chamber. Biden was one of 17 Democrats who voted in support of the bankruptcy legislation.
To this day, Warren holds a differing view of the role he played.
“I got in that fight because [families in bankruptcy] just didn’t have anyone and Joe Biden is on the side of the credit card companies,” she told reporters on the campaign trail in April. “It’s all a matter of public record.”
There is one thing they may agree on about their first face-off, as Biden told Warren when he swore her into the Senate in 2013:
“You gave me hell.”