Sept. 12 (UPI) -- Democratic presidential hopefuls tackled a host of topics, including gun control, healthcare and trade, in the third round of primary debate in Houston Thursday night.
A pared down group of 10 candidates appeared for the third session at Texas Southern University, and for the first time front-runners Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren shared the same stage. Prior debates, which randomized which candidates spoke on which of two nights of debate, had never placed the two together.
Gun violence was a significant portion of the evening, following a series of shooting attacks in the United States in recent weeks. Deadly shootings in Texas, Ohio and California galvanized calls for the Senate to take up new legislation on buyer restrictions, and sparked a national debate that spilled over onto the stage at H&PE Arena on the Texas Southern campus.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke raised his plan for mandatory firearms buybacks that would remove all banned assault weapons from private ownership. He reacted strongly to a moderator's question about whether such a policy amounts to confiscation, boldly stating he's committed to pulling military-style weapons from American streets.
"Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, we're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore," O'Rourke said.
California Sen. Kamala Harris defended her call for executive action on gun control, in the face of skepticism from the former vice president, who classified such a move as unconstitutional.
"Instead of saying 'no we can't,' let's say 'yes we can,'" he said, evoking the former campaign slogan of President Barack Obama.
So far, the Senate has not acted on legislation passed by the House that would strengthen background checks and institute "red flag" laws designed to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous Americans. Harris said waiting for Congress to act neglects the pain gun violence inflicts on families -- and accused President Donald Trump of playing an influential role in some of the recent violence.
"Obviously, he didn't pull the trigger, but he's certainly been tweeting out the ammunition," she said.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said all the candidates agree on efforts to stem gun violence, such as universal background checks and magazine limits, but also urged the Senate to vote on the bills before it -- which expand background checks, changes policy that automatically completes a sale if a background check takes longer than three days and prevents domestic abusers from buying assault-style rifles.
"If you want action now, we have to send a message to [Senate Republican leader] Mitch McConnell," she said. "We have to pass those bills right now."
Two members of the Obama administration, Biden and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, sparred on stage Thursday over key differences in their healthcare plans.
Castro said that Biden's health plan, which essentially expands on the Affordable Care Act, would still leave many Americans without medical coverage. He said one problem is it requires people to "opt in" for coverage, while Castro's proposes automatic enrollment.
"Barack Obama's vision was not to leave 10 million people uncovered," he said. "He wanted every single person in this country covered. My plan would do that; your plan would not."
Biden answered that, under his plan, Americans who cannot afford private insurance would be automatically covered -- to which Castro reminded him he'd just said on stage they would have to opt-in for coverage.
Biden added that the ACA, signed into law in 2010, has worked for millions of Americans, and his plan restores all aspects of the law that have been cut out by the Trump administration -- while adding a choice between public and private insurance.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has proposed a "Medicare for All" plan, questioned the cost of Biden's plan -- saying he'd only "gotten about halfway there" in his explanation.
"How are we going to pay for it? I want to hear tonight how that's happening," he said.
Medicare for All, Sanders said, would be less expensive than the ACA.
"I intend to eliminate all out of pocket expenses, all deductibles, all co-payments," he said. "Nobody in America will pay more than $200 a year for prescription drugs because we're going to stand up to the greed and corruption and price-fixing of the pharmaceutical industry."
The trade conflict with China, now in its second year, elicited varied strategies on the stage in Houston Thursday night. In recent months, the Trump administration and Beijing have swapped punitive tariffs, canceled talks and threatened more restriction -- a series of events all the Democratic challengers took issue with.
Businessman Andrew Yang said as president, he wouldn't repeal the tariffs on his first day in office, but would seek a deal to lessen the impact on American farmers and producers. He added that solving issues like theft of intellectual property -- which Trump has said is one of the main causes of the dispute -- would be a central tenet of his strategy.
"The imbalances are real, but we have to let the Chinese know that we recognize that President Trump has pursued an arbitrary and haphazard trade policy that has had victims on both sides," Yang said.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg accused Trump of effectively making up his trade policy as he goes along -- saying it's become clear the president "has no strategy" to negotiate a new trade deal with Beijing. He also criticized Trump for a lack of U.S. leadership at the G7 summit in France last month -- where the president, for example, was the only chief executive in the Group of 7 who did not attend a climate change forum.
"It's one more example of a commitment not made," Buttgieg said. "When that happens on the international stage, people take note. Not just our competitors, our adversaries, but also our allies take note of the inability of the United States to keep its word or follow through on its plans."
Buttigieg added that new American leadership is needed now more than ever, and warned the administration's growing tariffs against China -- which are paid by domestic importers on arrival at U.S. shores -- are actually harming American businesses, farmers and consumers.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker described Trump's policies as isolationist, saying the United States should be working with allies to resolve trade differences.
"We are the strongest nation on the planet Earth and our strength is multiplied and magnified when we stand with our allies in common cause and common purpose," he said. "That's how we beat China. That's how we beat climate change on the planet Earth, and that's how American values are the ones that lead on the issues of trade and workers' rights."
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said American trade policy is "broken" because it is being influenced by large corporations.
"Who sits at the table?" she asked. "I want to negotiate trade with unions at the table. I want to negotiate with small farmers at the table, environmentalists at the table, human rights activists at the table."
Warren emphasized there's significant demand among international community for access to the U.S. market.
"That means that we have the capacity to say, right here in America, 'if you want to come sell goods to American consumers then you have to raise your standards,'" she said. "You've got to raise your labor standards and you've got to raise your environmental standards so that our companies can compete on a level playing field."