Here’s where Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders stand on key policy issues

The view from an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage.
The view from an icebreaker in the Northwest Passage, where melting sea ice has been one of the most visible effects of global warming.
(David Goldman / Associated Press)

Former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders will face off one-on-one for the first time at Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate. Sanders has indicated he plans to push Biden on issues important to the senator’s supporters, including healthcare, climate change and homelessness. And Biden can be expected to push back on Sanders’ past record on gun control and the cost for his plan for “Medicare for all.”

On Sunday, hours before the debate, Biden expanded his higher education plan to include free tuition at public colleges and universities for students whose family incomes are less than $125,000 a year. Sanders’ plan would eliminate tuition and fees at public colleges for students, with no cap on family income.

Here is where the candidates stand on five issues important to Californians:


Climate change

Wildfires, rising seas, and rollbacks by the Trump administration that undermine California’s authority to pursue pioneering environmental policies have put climate change top of mind for Democratic voters. Biden and Sanders both have robust climate action agendas. Both vow to immediately reenlist the U.S. in the Paris accord to fight global warming.

Both would scrap all of the Trump rollbacks and set a firm deadline for moving the nation to net zero emissions, the point at which any greenhouse gas emissions caused by humans are balanced by carbon sinks in the environment or technologies that remove carbon from the atmosphere. The differences lie in how far, how fast and how much to spend.


The former vice president unveiled a $1.7-trillion plan for climate action that belies his brand of “incremental” progressivism. It doesn’t go as far as Sanders’ plan does, but it is hardly incremental.

During the Obama administration, Biden was at the forefront of pushing the world to embrace bolder climate action and the Paris accord on global warming. Faced with a hostile Congress, the Obama White House moved forward with aggressive administration actions aimed at cleaning up power plant emissions and moving the nation’s vehicle fleet toward significantly higher fuel efficiency.

Biden recognizes that the Obama plans were ambitious but also that merely picking up where the last Democratic administration left off will not fully address the urgent warnings of climate scientists. He calls for much further-reaching action and argues that his deep experience in diplomacy makes him uniquely qualified to reposition the U.S. as the world leader in confronting global warming.

Sanders prides himself on advancing the most far-reaching and aggressive plans in several major policy areas. Climate is no exception. His plan has a price tag of $16.3 trillion over 15 years, an expansion of government and ambitious targets. He sets an end date for fossil fuels. And the spending he outlines for investment in green technology, natural resource protection and expansion of public land dwarfs that proposed by any other candidate.

The blueprint closely reflects the goals laid out in the Green New Deal as drafted by progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts.


In his plan, Sanders talks about creating 20 million jobs and calls for cuts in military spending and “massive” tax hikes on fossil fuel income. There would be big investments in projects including high-speed rail as well as resiliency programs focused on such things as fighting wildfire and drought.


Housing and homelessness

Duanne Hardaway clears the street in front of tents on Broadway Place in L.A.
Duanne Hardaway clears the street in front of an encampment on Broadway Place in Los Angeles.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Biden has promised a sharp increase in Section 8 rent subsidies to ensure they’re available to all Americans whose income is low enough to qualify. He would allocate $5 billion for a tax credit to ensure that no family eligible for the subsidies would have to spend more than 30% of income on rent.

The former vice president would establish a $100-billion affordable housing fund to finance the upgrading of housing for low-income Americans. He has vowed to put $10 billion into tax incentives that encourage developers to build affordable housing in communities that need it the most. He would also condition federal grants to localities on the elimination of zoning restrictions that limit development near public-transit centers or encourage suburban sprawl. Biden has pledged $13 billion in spending to combat homelessness.

His criminal justice proposals include a goal of ensuring housing for all formerly incarcerated individuals upon release from prison.


Sanders’ housing agenda is ambitious, with a cost of more than $2 trillion over 10 years. He said he would spend $1.5 trillion on the National Housing Trust Fund to build or renovate affordable housing; $400 billion more to build 2 million units of housing for Americans of various incomes to encourage integration of communities; and $50 billion to enable 1 million families to purchase property that they co-own with other home buyers.

Sanders said he would spend $410 billion on new Section 8 rent subsidies for the poor, providing the vouchers to everyone who is eligible. He also would put $70 billion into public housing repairs and spend $2 billion to provide counsel for people facing foreclosure, eviction or loss of rent subsidies. He supports $500 million in spending on social services for the homeless. His plan would impose a cap on annual rent hikes of 3% or 1.5 times the consumer price index, whichever is higher.



Medicare for all, and how candidates line up for or against it became a proxy war for the broader philosophical fight between the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party. But there’s a lot more to healthcare policy than Medicare for all.

Most of the Democratic candidates delved into some of the other major issues pertaining to Americans’ well-being, including combating the opioid crisis, expanding mental health treatment and addressing the country’s poor maternal-health outcomes.

Biden and Sanders both support abortion rights and back codifying into federal law the 1973 Supreme Court ruling in Roe vs. Wade that legalized the procedure nationwide. They also support repealing the Hyde amendment, which largely prohibits federal dollars from paying for abortions. Both candidates have excoriated President Trump for his response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Biden’s speech on coronavirus dovetails with Democrats’ strategy of portraying Trump as a feckless and ineffective leader.

March 12, 2020


Biden has been a vocal critic of Medicare for all, arguing that it would be too costly. Instead, the former vice president proposes building on the Affordable Care Act by offering a public health insurance option that would be financed primarily through higher taxes on capital gains. People could also stay on their employer-based coverage or buy into a private plan on their own.

His plan would increase tax credits to ensure no one is spending more than 8.5% of their income on insurance. To lower drug prices, he would allow the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies, and he wants to limit launch prices for drugs that face no competition and to limit price increases for all brand and biotech drugs and high-priced generics to inflation. He would allow consumers to import drugs from other countries, as long as they are certified safe, and would terminate drug companies’ tax breaks for marketing costs.

Sanders is the candidate most closely associated with Medicare for all. After all, as he likes to say, he “wrote the damn bill!” His plan would do away with private insurance companies. Instead, his proposal would cover all residents, including those without legal status, under a government-run plan that would have no out-of-pocket costs for consumers except for prescription drugs. He has proposed financing the plan through a payroll tax on employers, higher income taxes on families making more than $29,000 per year and higher taxes on the wealthy.

The government would negotiate with drugmakers over prescription prices, and he would also allow patients, pharmacists and wholesalers to buy from Canada and other industrialized countries. He wants to peg medication prices to the median drug price in Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan. He has introduced legislation to prohibit illegal marketing and distribution of opioids and calling for criminal liability for drug company executives and for manufacturers to reimburse the country for the negative effects of their products.

To address shortages of healthcare providers, especially in the mental health fields, he wants to increase funding for the National Health Service Corps.



The former vice president supports providing healthcare and creating a pathway to citizenship for all who are in the country illegally and increasing the annual cap on refugees allowed into the United States to 125,000. He proposes allowing local governments to petition for new immigration visas to support economic growth if there are not enough local workers to fill jobs.

Biden is a vocal critic of Trump’s call to add to the border wall, but as a senator representing Delaware he voted to fund wall construction, and last year, he said he would support some new funding as part of a deal to provide citizenship to Dreamers.

He would not decriminalize unauthorized border crossings or restructure or abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. He has faced pointed criticism from immigrant rights activists over the record level of deportations under President Obama.

Sanders’ campaign includes three Dreamers who helped shape his immigration policy. The senator would institute an immediate moratorium on deportations and would seek to provide legal status and a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally in the first 100 days of his administration.


Sanders has said he does not believe the United States needs a border wall, though he did vote for some funding as part of a bill to avoid a government shutdown. He proposes restructuring the Department of Homeland Security, including breaking up ICE and Customs and Border Protection and redistributing their authority to other departments.

Along with providing a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, Sanders would aim to expand the program that protects their parents. His Medicare-for-all plan would cover residents in the country illegally.


Gun control

The candidates agree on big gun control policies, including banning the sale of semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15. After deadly mass shootings and a mounting suicide toll, they’ve called out the president and the powerful National Rifle Assn., the gun rights group that spent more than $30 million to help put Donald Trump in the White House. It’s in the details that differences emerge.

In the Senate, where Biden served from 1973 to 2009, he helped lay the foundation for the current background-check system and was one of the main supporters of the 1994 assault weapons ban, which lasted for a decade. Biden had hoped to revive the ban, along with other gun control policies, when he was vice president in the Obama administration, but he was stymied by pushback from Republicans and the NRA.

He’s now hoping to give the ban another go as president and require existing owners to register those guns with the government or sell them in a federal buyback program.

The Vermont senator has taken somewhat moderate positions on gun control in the past — voting against a federal background-check system in 1993 and at one point earning a C- grade from the NRA, which is more prone to giving Democrats failing grades — but no longer.


Sanders has since unequivocally called for a ban on assault weapons sales and for treating the ownership of existing weapons as the government treats that of fully automatic weapons, which are heavily restricted.

Times staff writers Michael Finnegan, Melissa Gomez, Melanie Mason, Matt Pearce, Seema Mehta, Evan Sanders contributed to this report.