ATLANTA (Reuters) - Democratic White House contenders united in backing the impeachment inquiry of Republican President Donald Trump on Wednesday, but differed over the wisdom of imposing new taxes on the wealthy and how to expand healthcare coverage for Americans.
At the fifth debate in the Democratic race to pick a challenger to Trump in the November 2020 election, candidates said the president’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden were an example of the administration’s corruption.
“We have to establish the principle that no one is above the law, we have a constitutional responsibility and we need to meet it,” said U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, an early supporter of Trump’s impeachment.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s bid to get Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
The candidates said Trump had forced lawmakers to hold him accountable.
“The constitutional process of impeachment should be beyond politics and it’s not part of the campaign. But the president’s conduct is,” said Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
Biden said as president he would leave it to the Department of Justice to decide whether Trump should be prosecuted for his actions.
“If that was the judgment, that he violated the law, and he should be in fact criminally prosecuted, then so be it. But I would not direct it, and I don’t think it’s a good idea that we mock, that we model ourselves after Trump and say: ‘Lock him up,’” he said.
The Democratic debate comes just 11 weeks before the first nominating contest in Iowa, on Feb. 3, raising the stakes for the 10 participants hoping for a chance to make an impression with voters before time runs out.
The Democratic White House race has featured a three-way battle at the top of recent national polls between moderate Biden, the former U.S. vice president, and progressive leaders Warren and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
But Buttigieg has taken the lead in two recent polls in Iowa and is on the move in early voting New Hampshire despite questions about his relative lack of experience and his inability to make inroads with African-American voters.
Warren has seen some of her momentum fade after coming under fire in the last debate from rivals who questioned how she would pay for her government-run Medicare for All plan, which would eliminate private health insurance, without raising taxes on the middle class.
But as in past debates, the candidates disagreed on Warren’s proposal to raise taxes on the wealthy and on her Medicare for All plan.
U.S. Senator Cory Booker said he agreed on the need to make the tax system more fair, but added: “I don’t agree with the wealth tax the way Elizabeth Warren puts it.”
Warren said a her proposal to tax wealth rather than just income would not punish anyone, but would tell the wealthy who had built something for the country that “all of us helped pay for it.”
Biden, who supports offering a government-run healthcare plan as an option, criticized Warren’s Medicare for All proposal and said the “vast majority” of Democrats did not support it.
“Right now, with Democrats, they couldn’t pass the House. (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi is one of those people who think it doesn’t make sense. We should build on Obamacare,” Biden said of the healthcare plan passed under Democratic President Barack Obama.
Warren has since released a detailed plan to fund the $20.5 trillion in new federal spending that she estimates her plan would cost over 10 years with tax increases on corporations and the wealthy, and “not one penny” of new middle-class taxes.
She followed up with a plan to implement her proposal in two stages, offering the option of buying into the current Medicare program for seniors, followed by legislation to end existing private plans by her third year in office.
The field of debaters has been trimmed from the 12 candidates in last month’s Democratic debate. Former U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas dropped out of the race and former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro was cut from the stage by the Democratic National Committee’s toughened qualifying criteria.
The debaters also could face questions about two other people who will not be on the stage - Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor who jumped into the race last week, and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is pondering a run because he is unsure if any of the current candidates can beat Trump.
Reporting by James Oliphant and Simon Lewis; Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Amanda Becker; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney