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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Clinton-Sanders Bailout Brawl

This time it’s Bernie Sanders’ turn to cherry-pick the facts about the auto bailout of 2008 and 2009 — which has become a point of contention between Sanders and Hillary Clinton in the final days before the Michigan presidential primary.

At campaign rallies in Dearborn and Kalamazoo on March 8, Sanders accused Clinton in the previous night’s debate of mischaracterizing his history on the auto bailout. He’s correct about that, as we wrote in our debate story. However, Sanders now goes too far in his defense.

Sanders, in Dearborn: There was one vote in terms of whether or not we bailed out the automobile industry in the Senate. Dec. 11, 2008. I voted for that bailout and support of the workers in the automobile industry. (32:15 mark.)

Sanders, in Kalamazoo: Last night, Secretary Clinton went out of her way to mischaracterize my history as it relates to the 2008 auto industry bailout. So let me be as clear as I can. There was one vote in the United States Senate on whether or not to support the auto bailout and protect jobs in Michigan and around this country. I voted for the auto bailout.

It’s true that Sanders voted to provide $15 billion to help rescue the auto industry. Sanders voted on Dec. 11, 2008, to bring the auto bailout bill to the floor for a final vote. But the motion failed to receive the 60 votes necessary, and the bill died.

It was because of that vote that we wrote Clinton stretched the facts in the debate when she said that Sanders “was against the auto bailout.”

However, Sanders’ claim that there was only “one vote” in the Senate “to support the auto bailout” ignores another Senate vote on Jan. 15, 2009. Sanders voted for a resolution on that day that would have blocked the release of an additional $350 billion for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (a.k.a., the Wall Street bailout). A small part of that $350 billion — $4 billion — was earmarked for the auto industry.

The resolution to block the second tranche of TARP funds failed, and the $350 billion was released, bringing the Wall Street bailout total to $700 billion. (Sanders voted against the first $350 billion in October 2008.) 

Both sides are cherry-picking votes to make their points, and it is easy to do in what was a very convoluted, back-door way of helping the auto industry over the objections of Congress.

This short timeline explains the sequence of events:

Oct. 1, 2008: The Senate approves legislation that provides $350 billion for the Troubled Asset Relief Program to help the financial industry that was by this point in a free fall. Sanders voted against the Wall Street bailout; Clinton voted for it.

Dec. 11, 2008: The Senate fails to advance a bill that would have provided $15 billion to the auto industry. Clinton and Sanders voted for it.

Dec. 19, 2008: After Congress failed to agree on funds for the auto industry, President Bush announces that he will use the TARP funds to help bail out the auto industry. He said “allowing the U.S. auto industry to collapse is not a responsible course of action.” He authorizes using $13.4 billion of TARP funds for the auto industry immediately, and promises an additional $4 billion in February — pending congressional approval of “the final tranche of TARP funds,” a reference to the second half of Bush’s proposed $700 billion bailout plan.

Jan. 15, 2009: The Senate fails to pass a resolution that would have blocked the second installment of TARP funds. Sanders voted to block the release of the $350 billion, which as we said included $4 billion for the auto industry. On the Senate floor, Michigan Sen. Carl Levin urged his Senate colleagues to vote against the resolution and to provide the remaining $4 billion for the auto industry. “We must complete the job started in December and ensure that the additional funding necessary for the financial health of this critical U.S. industry is provided in a timely manner,” Levin said.

We asked the Sanders campaign about the senator’s claim that there was only “one vote in the United States Senate on whether or not to support the auto bailout.” Warren Gunnels, a policy director for the Sanders campaign, said the senator’s remarks were “based on your fact check.” But our fact-check mentioned two Senate votes that were designed to provide funding for the auto industry — not just the one that Sanders now cites as the only vote.

Gunnels also said Sanders “never believed that the [TARP] money would be used for the auto industry.” Gunnels can safely say that about the first TARP vote in October 2008, and he can also safely say that Sanders could not envision that ultimately Bush and Obama combined would use about $80 billion of TARP funds for the auto industry. But Gunnels cannot plausibly say that Sanders did not know that the second vote in January 2009 did not contain funding for the auto industry. As we said, Levin spoke on the Senate floor about the auto industry, saying “this additional $4 billion must come from the second $350 billion.”

We agree with the Sanders campaign that Clinton went too far in the debate when she claimed Sanders was “against the auto bailout.” In fact, as we pointed out, Sanders voted to advance a bill that would have provided $15 billion for the industry. He explained at the time that he supported the auto bailout bill because “it would be a terrible idea to add millions more to the unemployment rolls.”

But just as Clinton ignores some inconvenient facts, so now does Sanders on the eve of the Michigan primary.