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News Brief: Presidential Debate, EPA Changes Clean Water Rules


Now we know what it looks and sounds like when all the Democratic presidential contenders share the same stage.


That's right. The 10 leading candidates met in Houston, Texas. Joe Biden, who's been leading in the polls, stood near the center. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders stood to either side. Now, it would be hard to say that anybody decisively won a debate so many months before actual voting. But this event did seem to highlight genuine differences among Democrats, including those three at center stage.

INSKEEP: What were the differences? Well, NPR political reporter Asma Khalid is in Houston. Good morning, Asma.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And our senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro was watching, too. Domenico, good morning to you.


INSKEEP: And let's start with you, Domenico. What did you see as those candidates spoke?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, you know, the big thing here was that this was the strongest debate - at least to start - for Joe Biden. He was crisper than he's been. He seemed ready to go on the attack. But he also got some help early on - and that's a big part of why he was able to kind of do better - from Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota.

She really decided to kind of hug the moderate lane and it seemed to put a floor under Biden. And it didn't wind up turning into a pile on like it has in other debates.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, pile on Joe Biden. And instead, there was this division in the Democratic Party with several candidates on either side and, Asma, something close to - I think close to half an hour of disagreements on a single big issue, health care.

KHALID: That's right. And we've seen other health care debates in the first two debates. But what I think was unique about this one is that the focus of the health care conversation, for much of this campaign cycle, has been concentrated on the progressive left, specifically around Bernie Sanders' "Medicare for All" plan. Last night, Biden was much more aggressive in defending his ideas around health care.

And I want you to take a listen to a specific bite of what he had to say.


JOE BIDEN: I think - I know that the senator says she's for Bernie. Well, I'm for Barack. I think the Obamacare worked. I think the way - we add to it, replace everything that's been cut, add a public option, guarantee that everyone will be able to have affordable insurance.

INSKEEP: I guess we should clarify - senator says she's for Bernie - he's referring to Elizabeth Warren...

KHALID: Elizabeth Warren...


KHALID: ...Yes. Exactly. And, you know, the Biden campaign sees this argument as a clear strength for him, you know. But, look, in Warren world, people sort of laugh at the idea that health insurance - that people like their health insurance company. They'll say people like their doctor, they like their nurse. And, you know, the Massachusetts senator doesn't really want to take the bait and specifically when Biden is pushing around this idea of taxes and costs, which is something we saw last night. They feel like that's an intellectually dishonest argument about whether or not taxes on the middle class will go up. They think that, really, you ought to look at total cost. But I would say, you know, look, a lot of lay voters aren't going to get that distinction between costs and taxes. It's kind of lost in the details.

INSKEEP: Yeah. What - they're essentially acknowledging your taxes would go up, aren't they? But they're saying your other costs - your other health care costs would go down in many cases. So we've got Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren favoring Medicare for All. But as Domenico mentioned, Joe Biden was not the only person saying, wait a minute, let's do something a little more - a little more moderate here.

KHALID: And, you know, Domenico just mentioned, actually, specifically Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who defended many times this idea of health care. You know, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has made a point of saying he wrote the damn bill around Medicare for All, so he knows that people are mischaracterizing it.

Well, here's what Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar had to say about that.


AMY KLOBUCHAR: While Bernie wrote the bill, I read the bill. And on Page 8...


KLOBUCHAR: ...On Page 8 of the bill, it says that we will no longer have private insurance as we know it. I don't think that's a bold idea. I think it's a bad idea.

KHALID: And this idea of eliminating choice is something we also heard from South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who touted his idea. He has this plan called a Medicare for All Who Want It. And basically he says that, you know, you should trust the American voters to do what they want and have the sense to choose what they opt for.

INSKEEP: OK. So quite substantive debate there. Maybe not a lot that was new, but people could sit there and look at the differences between the candidates. Now, we mentioned that there were 10 Democrats on stage, but sometimes it seemed almost like there were 11.

Let's listen.


KAMALA HARRIS: I want to give credit first to Barack Obama for really bringing us this far...

ELIZABETH WARREN: We all owe a huge debt to President Obama, who fundamentally transformed health care in America...

JULIAN CASTRO: And of course, we owe a debt of gratitude to President Barack Obama.

INSKEEP: Domenico, it sounds like President Obama had a pretty good debate.


MONTANARO: It's quite a difference from what we've heard in past debates when they've been pretty critical of Obama's tenure as not progressive enough, you know. And those newly warm feelings tell me they recognize Biden is still in the lead and just how important older black voters - who've been really supporting Biden - are to who wins this nomination.

I mean, President Obama is still very popular within the Democratic Party. And a lot of voters who we've talked to on the campaign trail sort of chafed at this idea that they were just sort of dismissing him. Especially with President Trump in the White House, they were saying, well, how far do they want to go? We kind of liked what President Obama had to do.

INSKEEP: I guess we should be explicit about this. Of course, Joe Biden, having been Barack Obama's vice president...

MONTANARO: Of course.

INSKEEP: ...Is the most naturally associated with Obama's record.

MONTANARO: Well - and he's wrapped himself in President Obama. And everyone else has sort of ceded the lane, which was kind of jaw-dropping, to be totally honest.

INSKEEP: There was also a difference last night on gun laws. Beto O'Rourke, Democrat of Texas, noted early on that his city, El Paso, just suffered a mass shooting just weeks ago. And he was pretty definite about assault-style rifles.


BETO O'ROURKE: Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47...


O'ROURKE: ...We're not going to allow it to be used against our fellow Americans anymore.

INSKEEP: Asma, what does O'Rourke want to do? And how does that compare to the other candidates on stage?

KHALID: So he's proposing a mandatory gun buyback program. And, Steve, you know, you heard that line was so enthusiastically received in the debate hall. But that just shows you it's really popular maybe with the activist base of the Democratic Party. Most of the candidates do agree on some sort of version of a voluntary gun buyback program. But O'Rourke is going further with this mandatory idea.

You know, I think what's really interesting is that, when you look at the broader electorate, mandatory gun buybacks are really controversial. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that 46% of Americans are against Congress passing such legislation, 45% are in favor. And really, the divide splits along partisan lines.

INSKEEP: Domenico, one other question for you. We've talked about the five or six leading candidates...


INSKEEP: ...Did anybody a little bit further down in the polls stand out?

MONTANARO: Well, you know, you look at O'Rourke, I mean, he certainly was in kind of full-reboot mode of his candidacy. And all of these other candidates are starting to sort of feel the heat. And they were really trying some Hail Marys. You had Andrew Yang with this competition to give out a thousand dollars to 10 different people. Amy Klobuchar went for broke in the moderate lane. You had Julian Castro forcefully going after Joe Biden at several turns. So you had a lot of these candidates realizing that votes are going to be cast shortly and had to take some risks last night.

INSKEEP: Domenico and Asma Khalid, thanks so much.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

KHALID: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Domenico Montanaro and NPR's Asma Khalid.


INSKEEP: The Trump administration is changing what qualifies as the waters of the United States. The head of the Environmental Protection Agency signed off on the repeal of an Obama-era regulation. For many years, federal law has aimed to limit pollution in lakes and rivers. The administration of President Obama extended that rule in ways that would regulate pollution on wetlands and smaller waterways. They were to be regulated in part because they flow into the bigger waterways.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler argued that rolling back that rule would reassure farmers and homebuilders and landowners. NPR's Nate Rott is covering this story for us, and he's on the line. Nate, good morning.


INSKEEP: What was the regulation exactly?

ROTT: So what they're scrapping is a regulation that was finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration called the Waters of the U.S. rule or WOTUS for short...


ROTT: ...Because, you know as well as I do, Steve, that every federal policy is only as strong as its acronym...

INSKEEP: That's not the strongest acronym, I got to tell you...

ROTT: No, it's not.

INSKEEP: ...But anyway, go on. Go on.

ROTT: But basically, what the Waters of the United States did was it tried to define which rivers, streams, wetlands and lakes should deserve protection under the Clean Water Act. The Clean Water Act itself largely limits pollution in big, navigable waterways. That's the term in the actual statute. But court decisions, including a ruling from the Supreme Court, left the door open for protections to expand off of those bigger waterways; so like you said, not just the river, but the stream that feeds into it or the wetland next to it. And Obama wanted to basically officially extend federal water protections to that larger connected water system with this regulation.

INSKEEP: I guess we should just underline the basic problem here is gravity. You want to protect the rivers - the big rivers. You want to protect the big lakes. But essentially all land - I mean, everything flows downhill into something. And so how do you - how far do you extend that protection inland? Why did the Trump administration consider Obama's approach to be a power grab?

ROTT: Well, you know, this change was not terribly popular with a number of groups - farmers, developers, miners. You know, they saw this - as they did many Obama environmental regulations - as a federal land grab and an overreach of what the Clean Water Act was actually intended to do. And look, the rules certainly expanded federal water protections to new waterways.

But was it - I think it was - as is the case with a lot of these policies one way or the other, there's a lot of rhetoric where the on-the-ground impact is a little harder to discern. Part of that in this rule is because it was immediately challenged in court by some of the groups that we just mentioned. And the Trump administration was clear from its start that this rule was one of its top environmental targets. So in some ways, it was kind of a dead rule walking.

INSKEEP: Oh, so we never really found out how much landowners and other people might have been affected had this rule been fully implemented.

ROTT: No. It was only implemented in 2015 and was challenged by a number of states.

INSKEEP: So do we have any sense now of how landowners and other people will be affected now that the rule is conclusively dead?

ROTT: Again, hard to say. You know, those groups are thrilled by this decision. EPA chief Andrew Wheeler announced this repeal, you know, to applause at the National Association of Manufacturers headquarters yesterday. But this rule, like many of the Trump administration's regulatory rollbacks, is going to be challenged in court. And so at the end of the day, the impact is probably going to be discerned by a court decision.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, is my drinking water supposed to be affected by this?

ROTT: Again, hard to say. You know, an immediate - the federal water protections are going to revert back to where they were in 1986. But the Trump administration is also making its own water rule, which would basically try to provide its own definition for waters of the U.S. Unsurprisingly, it's a lot less than what the Obama administration had envisioned.

INSKEEP: NPR's Nate Rott. Thanks so much.

ROTT: Yeah. Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.