Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren Bankruptcy Fight Could Come Back In Debates What a testy 2005 fight between Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden can tell us about the two 2020 presidential candidates

Democratic Presidential Debates Could Reignite Warren-Biden Bankruptcy Fight

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The Democratic Party plans this week to announce the lineups for the first batch of 2020 presidential primary debates. For a preview of what these debates might be like, NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben says just watch a 2005 Senate hearing.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Fourteen years ago, Congress was considering an overhaul to the nation's bankruptcy system - one that would restrict who could write off their debts. It might sound boring, except for the people involved - on one side, Delaware Senator Joe Biden, who backed that overhaul; on the other, Elizabeth Warren, then a Harvard law professor. Biden questioned her at a congressional hearing, where they argued over what exactly they were arguing over.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Senator, I think you've put your finger on the heart of what the bankruptcy bill - or bankrupt in general not this bill...

JOE BIDEN: Forget bankruptcy. I'm asking a larger question. Forget about bankruptcy.

WARREN: No, no, but that's what I mean. It's the question of what role bankruptcy plays.

BIDEN: That's not my question. I'd like you to answer my question.

KURTZLEBEN: At issue is this. Bankruptcy-reform backers often argue that there was too much bankruptcy abuse. Restricting bankruptcy, they reasoned, would stop that from happening. But opponents like Warren emphasized bankruptcy as a basic consumer protection. They singled out some businesses as predatory, like the credit card companies pushing the bill. That industry has a heavy presence in Biden's home state of Delaware.


WARREN: They have squeezed enough out of these families in interest and fees and payments that never pay down principle.

BIDEN: Maybe we should talk about usury rates. Maybe that's what we should be talking about not bankruptcy.

WARREN: Senator, I'll be the first. Invite me.

BIDEN: No, I know you will, but let's call a spade a spade. Your problem with the credit card companies is usury rates from your position. It's not about the bankruptcy bill.

WARREN: But, Senator, if you're not going to fix that problem, you can't take away the last shred of protection from these families.

BIDEN: I got it. OK. You're very good, professor.

KURTZLEBEN: According to David Skeel, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who has authored a history of bankruptcy, this wasn't just any argument.

DAVID SKEEL: Elizabeth Warren was the most important critic of the legislation, and she spent years fighting it. That's what really first got her into the public eye. And Joe Biden was critically important to passing the legislation.

KURTZLEBEN: By the time they fought in that hearing room, Biden and Warren's opposition to each other was well-established. He had supported the bill in the past, and she had repeatedly, harshly criticized him for it. And fights over this type of bill have continued to resurface. In 2016, the Bernie Sanders campaign criticized Hillary Clinton for supporting a bankruptcy overhaul, and they used Warren's words to do it. Here she is talking to Bill Moyers in 2004.


WARREN: The credit card companies have been giving money. And they're - they have influence.

BILL MOYERS: And Mrs. Clinton was one of them as senator.

WARREN: She has taken money from the groups. And more to the point, she worries about them as a constituency.

KURTZLEBEN: Now that Warren is herself running, she and her supporters are making a similar argument, using the bankruptcy fight to tell voters that she's willing to take on big companies and that Biden was not. Here's Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Warren.

ADAM GREEN: The credit card fight was just one chapter of that ongoing struggle between the corporate Democrat wing and those who want the Democratic Party to be squarely on the side of the people.

KURTZLEBEN: Biden and his supporters, meanwhile, frame the bankruptcy bill as evidence of his practicality. Here's Terrell McSweeny, who worked as a Biden staffer just after the bill passed.

TERRELL MCSWEENY: Senator Biden, knowing, essentially, that the bill was likely to make it through a Republican-led Congress to a Republican-controlled White House, really worked hard to make sure the bill protected middle-class families.

KURTZLEBEN: And that plays into a larger narrative of Biden as an experienced politician who believes in compromise. It's an argument he made in his kickoff speech.


BIDEN: I've worked across the aisle to reach consensus, to help make government work in the past. I can do that again with your help.

KURTZLEBEN: That contrasts between a populist consumer advocate and a consensus-minded establishment figure has sustained itself and has been a recurring theme in this campaign. For his part, bankruptcy expert Skeel acknowledges that he's not a political strategist, but he does have one prediction of his own.

SKEEL: It strikes me that one potential implication is it's highly unlikely you will see a Democratic ticket with both of them on it.

KURTZLEBEN: It's a long way until that can happen. Until then, there's a good chance this fight could resurface on a debate stage.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

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