LAS VEGAS -- Democratic presidential candidates' tussle over health care reform continued Saturday as they pitched themselves to Nevada union members, with former Vice President Joe Biden declaring he's "against any Democrat who wants to get rid of Obamacare" and Sen. Kamala Harris saying no Democrat should be on the debate stage without a plan to cover everybody.
They were among 19 candidates speaking at a forum held by the nation's largest public employees union in the state that will cast the first votes in the West in next year's primary. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 1.6 million workers nationwide, and the candidates made their cases for why their plans would be the best for union workers in addition to discussing other key union issues such as raising wages and expanding collective bargaining rights.
Harris, who has introduced a version of "Medicare for All" that would allow closely regulated private plans, said she developed it in part by consulting with organized labor.
"I've been listening to a lot of folks in labor who have said to me, 'look, we negotiated contracts where we've given up wages for these health care benefits and under the Medicare for All plan we would lose them or we would be certainly in fear of losing them," she said. She added she chose to phase her plan in over 10 years because "that will allow for at least two cycles of organizing and negotiating contracts."
Her remarks about Democrats without a plan to cover everybody were surely aimed at Biden, whose campaign says his plan would cover 97 percent of people. Earlier in the day Biden raised his voice as he defended former President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law, saying supporting it helped Democrats win key seats in the 2018 election.
Meanwhile Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who authored a Medicare for All bill, said guaranteed government health care will allow unions to be free to "sit down and negotiate decent wage increases." Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who also backs Medicare for All, tried to redirect attention to the Trump administration's efforts to have federal courts declare the entire Affordable Care Act law unconstitutional.
"When we talk about the great debate right now in health care, it's not Democrats versus Democrats. It's Democrats versus Republicans. Republicans want to take away health care from tens of millions of people in this country and they're actively still trying to do it," Warren said.
The day's remarks were yet another indication that health care has emerged as one of the clearest dividing lines for the massive Democratic field, and one of several where Biden has tried to paint his rivals as criticizing Obama's legacy.
Former Obama Cabinet secretary Julian Castro, who recently sparred with Biden on immigration, said it's not an attack on Obama to acknowledge Democrats can do better. He said the Obama administration improved over time by decreasing the number of deportations, but also said Democrats should have made immigration reform a priority when they controlled Congress early in Obama's presidency.
"There are lessons that we can learn," Castro said. "This is not about criticizing President Obama, this is about 'OK, what does the next administration have to do?"
Beyond health care, most candidates pledged labor would play a strong role in their administration and said they'd work to allow government employees to collectively bargain following Nevada's recent law giving that power to state workers. Many candidates pledged to boost taxes on the wealthy to pay for things like expanded child care and decreasing college debt.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said he'd give people who work at home taking care of disabled family members a tax credit, while Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said union workers should be helping build clean cars and other new technology to fight climate change.
The union has not decided if it will endorse in the Democratic primary but will take its time considering because they've "got a lot of friends in the race," President Lee Saunders said.
The candidates packed in events around the Las Vegas area over the weekend in a nod to Nevada's status as the third state where Democrats will vote in the primary, just after Iowa and New Hampshire and before South Carolina. Despite Democrats largely sweeping the state in 2018, it remains a battleground where President Donald Trump sees a chance of winning next year. He lost the state in 2016 to Democrat Hillary Clinton by 2 percentage points.
Other candidates who spoke Saturday included: Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, billionaire activist Tom Steyer, author Marianne Williamson, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and former Reps. John Delaney of Maryland and Beto O'Rourke of Texas.