Sen. Kamala Harris said Sunday that she applauds former Vice President Joe Biden’s apology on his comments about his ability to be civil and work with segregationist senators in the 1970s, but stopped short of absolving him of all of his past remarks on issues of race.
The California Democrat said a “point of disagreement” between the two still remains when it comes to desegregation busing.
“He is right to recognize the impact of his words, and I applaud him for doing that,” Harris said of her 2020 presidential opponent during a gaggle with reporters in Hartsville, South Carolina. “There is still a point of disagreement between he and I, and that remains … which is the issue of busing.”
“We cannot rewrite history about what segregationists were doing at that time on a number of issues including opposing busing.”
Since jumping in the race, Biden has faced criticism from several of his 2020 Democratic opponents on his decades-long record in public office, including his opposition to desegregation busing and his involvement in the 1994 crime bill. At a fundraiser in June, Biden also recalled being a member of the Senate in the 1970s with Southern Democrats who opposed civil rights and desegregation, noting that while he disagreed with them, “there was some civility” and “we got things done” – the former vice president’s statements were quickly condemned by Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, another 2020 Democratic contender.
Though Biden initially doubled down on his comments, he said on Saturday during a campaign speech in Sumter, South Carolina – where black voters made up about 61% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016 – that he regrets making the statements in June.
“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it,” Biden said in part. “I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception I may have caused anybody.”
The former Vice President told reporters in Charleston, South Carolina, on Sunday that he chose to apologize Saturday because it was “the first opportunity” he had to do it in a “fulsome” way in front of the Palmetto state audience who “would have been the most likely to be offended by anything that was said.”
Still, this weekend was Biden’s second time in the first-in-the-south primary state since the furor unfolded. Biden visited the state just two weeks ago, arriving on June 21 for the state’s Democratic Party convention weekend which included Congressman Jim Clyburn’s Fish Fry.
That weekend, Biden appeared in an interview with MSNBC’S Rev. Al Sharpton following the convention. He said he understood “the consequence of the word ‘boy,’” and didn’t intend to use it in an offensive way, but failed to go further in his comments.
In making his most forceful rebuttal to attacks on his record to date on Saturday, Biden also leaned heavily on his experience serving in the Obama administration under the nation’s first black president.
Biden’s apology and defense of his record comes after Harris confronted Biden at the first Democratic debate, pushing him on whether he was wrong to oppose desegregation busing. Biden shot back at the time, saying, “I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education, that’s what I opposed.” The back and forth ended with Biden, determined to escape Harris’ crosshairs, cutting himself off and declaring, “My time is up.”
Biden opposed busing more than four decades ago as a battle raged across the country – and in Congress – over sending white students to majority-black schools and black students to majority-white schools often far away from their own neighborhoods. Biden forcefully opposed the government’s role in trying to integrate schools, saying he favored desegregation, but believed busing did not achieve equal opportunity.
Biden told CNN in an exclusive interview that aired Friday that his stance on busing was taken out of context during the debate and that he wasn’t expecting Harris to attack him the way she did. When excerpts of his speech were released on Saturday, Harris spokesperson Ian Sams tweeted that “every candidate’s record will (and should) be scrutinized in this race,” adding, “It’s a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes.”
Booker previously brought Biden’s comments on working with segregationist senators and use of the word “boy” while talking of the past to the forefront, calling on the former vice president to apologize and saying Biden was “wrong” for using those relationships as examples of how to bring our country together.”
“These are the kind of things that do cause hurt and harm,” Booker told CNN soon after Biden’s initial comments in June.
On Saturday, Booker also responded to Biden’s apology, saying, “First I want to say thank you. We are at a point in our country where we need our leaders to be able to speak towards race issues without falling into a defensive posture or shifting blame.”
CNN’s Jeff Zeleny, Gregory Krieg, Veronica Stracqualursi, Sarah Mucha, Arlette Saenz and Caroline Kenny contributed to this report.