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COVER STORY: HEADED FOR THE HILL | Colorado congressional delegation weighs in on priorities, road ahead in Washington

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With Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the White House and slim majorities in the House Senate, Democrats hold all the levers of power in Washington for the first time in more than a decade.

For the six Democrats in Colorado’s nine-member congressional delegation, it’s a chance to wield influence by helping to steer state and national priorities and pursue legislation, including bills that idled in the Senate for years when the chamber was under Republican control.

congressional delegation

Members of Colorado's congressional delegation are, top row left, are Sen. Michael Bennet, Sen. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Lauren Boebert; second row from left, Rep. Ken Buck, Rep. Jason Crow, Rep. Diana DeGette; third row from left, Rep. Doug Lamborn, Rep. Joe Neguse and Rep. Ed Perlmutter.

The delegation’s three Republicans, on the other hand, will mostly be playing defense on a host of executive actions and legislative proposals coming from Biden administration and across the aisle, though each is also championing issues important in their district that they hope won’t get bogged down by partisan rancor.

While Colorado doesn’t boast federal lawmakers with the kind of clout that comes with chairing major committees, every member of the state’s delegation occupies a spot with significant power, whether it’s serving as chair or ranking member on key subcommittees, membership on select committees or — in the case of the delegation’s newest lawmakers — finding themselves with bully pulpits to advocate for their priorities.

In recent interviews and communications with constituents, Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers agreed that the top priority for Congress in the coming weeks is a massive COVID-19 relief package — “addressing both the health of people and the health of the economy,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat serving his eighth term.

“Our first job needs to be getting through the pandemic and reopening our economy — especially small businesses,” Sen. John Hickenlooper, the Democratic former governor elected to the Senate in November, told Colorado Politics. “We’ve got to come out stronger and simultaneously start tackling challenges like the climate crisis and skyrocketing prescription drug prices.”

After a brief run for president in 2019 touting his ability to calm Washington’s partisan tensions by sitting down with intractable opponents to hash out solutions, the former brewpub owner could be in a position to try in the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, a second-term Aurora Democrat who prosecuted the first impeachment trial against President Trump, is calling for a comprehensive investigation the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.

Two other Colorado lawmakers, Reps. Diana DeGette of Denver and Joe Neguse of Lafayette, are among the nine House Democrats prosecuting the second impeachment case, which accuses the president of inciting the mob.

Sweet 16

Hickenlooper is one of eight Democrats and eight Republicans — dubbed the Sweet 16 — tasked by the Biden administration with coming up with a deal on COVID relief legislation that can make it out of the 50-50 Senate, where Harris wields the tie-breaking vote in her role as the chamber’s president.

Hal Bidlack: "Not every problem requires a national response. The Founders were wise to create a system of federalism, wherein the various levels of government — national, state, and local — would each have their own specific areas of responsibility. That is why your county fixes your potholes and your local board of education controls your schools, and a national army protects you from invasion. But clearly some issues truly do need a national response, and health care is one of them."

“The big one that needs to be done very soon is a more complete COVID package that deals with development, production and distribution of the vaccines, especially as we get these mutations and variants, to make (vaccines) available and get them out and squash this virus and help people stay healthy,” Perlmutter said in an interview.

“The second part of that will be assisting those that have been laid off with unemployment or potentially rental assistance, and to assist small businesses who have been clobbered by the various shutdowns and weaker economy.”

DeGette, in her 13th term, cheered Biden and Harris in an email to supporters.

“We can finally breathe a collective sigh of relief,” she said.

“But, our celebrations cannot overshadow the enormous challenges that lie ahead of us. COVID-19 continues to devastate our country, the pandemic has exacerbated issues within BIPOC (*Black, indigenous, people of color) communities, and the American people need relief. The fight to build a more equitable country is coming to a fever pitch.”

Neguse, beginning his second term, sounded optimistic.

“A new Congress brings new opportunities, and just as we did over the last two years, we are focused on leading locally, listening to our community and working to solve problems for our district and the people of Colorado,” he said in a statement.

Driving recovery

Crow and Sen. Michael Bennet, a Denver Democrat in his second full six-year term, joined more than a dozen co-prime sponsors just days after Biden’s inauguration introducing legislation to create what they've dubbed the Health Force. The program would recruit, train and employ hundreds of thousands of Americans to respond to the pandemic, help distribute vaccines and boost the country’s long-term public health workforce, while jolting the economy and its bruised labor market.

“For the past 10 months, Washington has allowed the virus to manage us instead of taking action to manage the virus. Despite the heroic efforts of frontline health workers, chronic underinvestment in our public health infrastructure has only compounded the damage. We need a new approach,” Bennet said in a statement.

Crow said it's time for bold action.

"Any hope of defeating this pandemic and getting our country back on track rests on our ability to invest in our public health workforce,” he said in a statement announcing the bill.

“In our interconnected world, we need a national response that mobilizes an army of public health workers. The future men and women of the Health Force represent the next generation of service, one that directly addresses the enemy here at home.”

Perlmutter pointed to another element of pandemic relief that has been met with consistent opposition from Republicans but that could make it to the president’s desk from the new, Democratic-controlled Capitol.

“Within the COVID package, I hope to see assistance to state and local governments for their lost tax revenue at the same time they're having to pick up a lot of responsibility of trying to get people healthy, trying to keep businesses alive,” he said.

That’s one place Hickenlooper’s role working with other moderate lawmakers could come into play, Perlmutter said.

“John Hickenlooper is working on a bipartisan package, and to the degree we could get that, that would be the best avenue to take. But if that isn't forthcoming, if we can't get an agreement on things like state and local government (aid), assisting businesses, assisting individuals — if we can't get that, then I think we can proceed with reconciliation, a parliamentary approach you've got to take with the Senate to move that thing forward and get something passed within the next month to two months, so by the end of March.”

Passing portions of pandemic aid under Senate rules using reconciliation — which allows legislation to pass with a simple majority, bypassing the 60-vote requirement to get past a GOP-led filibuster — becomes increasingly likely.

Bennet and Hickenlooper say they’re ready to move Americans closer to universal health care coverage, including by adopting a public option, possibly modeled on the Medicare-X program authored by Bennet.

“I think Coloradans want universal coverage,” Hickenlooper told The Denver Channel. “I think that’s going to take a public option, that President Biden has talked about frequently, and I think it’s going to take working with the doctors, and the insurance companies, and the hospitals, and the pharmaceutical companies.” He added: "Everyone’s going to have to be at the table if we’re going to control costs; everyone is going to have to give up a little.”

In addition, a Hickenlooper spokeswoman said taking action on the climate crisis, protecting public lands and creating clean energy jobs also top the senator’s agenda.

Republicans and relief

The delegation’s Republicans didn’t list a COVID relief package among their priorities, but the dean of the state’s House Republicans, eight-term Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, referred to needs created by the pandemic in a statement.

“I will push for meaningful legislation that strengthens our economy and ease regulations on small businesses, which are our country's backbone,” Lamborn said. “Business owners are doing their best to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. I believe that big government should get out of their way, allow them to open their doors, serve their patrons safely, and get this economy moving again.”

Taking a turn at the microphone in the well of the Senate past midnight on the night of Jan. 6, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet made a case against an objection raised by Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican and Bennet’s reliable antagonist, to counting the electoral votes submitted by the state of Arizona.

Rep. Ken Buck of Windsor, the chairman of the Colorado GOP and serving his fourth term in the House, blasted Biden and the Democratic administration’s aggressive launch.

“With his litany of executive orders, President Biden is ripping good-paying jobs away from oil and gas workers and making our nation less safe,” Buck said in a statement. “Instead of unifying the country, Biden is appeasing the liberal wing of his party.”

On some issues, however, Democrats and Republicans are rowing in the same direction, including efforts to keep the headquarters of Space Command and the Bureau of Land Management in Colorado.

“In the 117th Congress, I will prioritize working across the aisle with my colleagues in Colorado's delegation to overturn the terrible basing decision for Space Command's headquarters, returning it to its rightful home of Colorado Springs,” Lamborn said.

Bennet has led a unified delegation’s request to the Biden administration to reevaluate a decision made in the final days of Trump’s administration to move Space Command and its 1,400 troops from Colorado Springs to Huntsville, Alabama, throwing bipartisan muscle behind Lamborn on a crucial installation for his district.

"I am going to fight like hell," Bennet told The Gazette. He added: "I believe the decision was made purely for politics, not in the interests of national security.”

"So, it is obviously one of our tip-top priorities," Hickenlooper said.

BLM in Colorado

The two Democratic senators are also leaning on the Biden administration to keep BLM headquarters in Grand Junction, where the Trump administration moved it — and are doubling down with a pitch to expand the office.

"We believe that such an effort must be more than symbolic and must include the staff and resources to improve management and protect our public land,” Bennet and Hickenlooper wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to Biden. “A full headquarters in Colorado would not only grow the Western Colorado economy, but also send an important signal that rural America is an appropriate place for such a prestigious institution.”

Rep. Lauren Boebert, a controversial freshman from Silt, led a letter to Biden signed by 21 House Republicans, including Buck and Lamborn, asking the administration to leave the BLM headquarters where it is, in her district.

“Moving the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction was a game changer for the West and local communities,” she wrote. “People from nearby states that would have never traveled to Washington, D.C., for a meeting have already found their way to Grand Junction, including sheriffs, ranchers and county commissioners. Customer service has improved, better decisions are being made in the field, and taxpayers will save millions of dollars annually. What’s not to like?”

Added Boebert: “It only makes sense to have the people managing hundreds of millions of acres of land located near that land and accessible to those communities. The Bureau of Land Management’s move west is a win for all Americans.”

“From a district perspective, Congresswoman Boebert has wasted no time fighting for the folks back home,” Ben Stout, her communications director, told Colorado Politics in an email.

Infrastructure, acrimony, policy

Perlmutter said he’s hopeful the delegation can bridge its divides on what could be the next big legislative push by the Biden administration after a COVID package.

“Infrastructure is No. 2, and I think that will be bipartisan, because there is a lot of need — roads and bridges, the electrical system, broadband, water systems, as well as school construction and housing construction,” Perlmutter said. “I see that as something a lot of people can support, Democrats and Republicans — good jobs and an investment in the future — so I see that happening.”

Beyond that, though, there doesn’t appear to be much cross-aisle overlap among the delegation's priorities.

Sitting on the Senate Finance, Agriculture and Intelligence committees, Bennet is again proposing major reduction in childhood poverty.

The legislation would increase the Child Tax Credit from $2,000 to $3,000 for children under age 18 and to $3,600 for children under age 6, and it’s aimed at cutting childhood poverty 45% overall, including 52% for Black children and 61% for Native American children.

Bennet said he was optimistic.

“We need to do everything we can to ensure kids don’t suffer long-term damage from this crisis, to support middle-class families, and to cut child poverty,” he stated.

DeGette, Neguse priorities

DeGette said in an email to supporters that she looks forward to working with the new administration to “protect more of our nation’s public lands, combat the climate crisis, protect Americans’ right to access reproductive care — and so much more.”

Noting that almost one-third of adults have diabetes or are prediabetic, DeGette, a co-chair of the Congressional Diabetes Caucus, calls it a top priority to find ways to prevent more Americans from developing the disease. A bill she introduced late in the last Congress would make permanent an online program to teach prediabetic Medicare beneficiaries how to live healthier lives, reducing their chances of developing Type 2 diabetes.

With a seat on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and one of four co-chairs of the House's Democratic Policy and Communications Committee — a post ranking No. 8 in House leadership — Neguse is buzzing with priorities.

Ally’s Act, a bipartisan bill inspired by its 11-year-old namesake in Broomfield, would require that insurance providers cover specialized hearing devices, such as cochlear implants and bone-anchored hearing aids.

“It has meant a great deal to me to be able to work with Ally and her family, and I am incredibly grateful for Ally’s initiative and courage to bring this issue to my office,” Neguse said. “I look forward to continuing to represent her and many others as we work to get this bill passed.”

Neguse’s Next Generation Votes Act, which would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, is based on a Colorado law pushed by New Era Colorado, a group Neguse helped found that encourages younger people to vote.

“Young voices are essential to our democracy,” Neguse said, maintaining that the legislation “ensures that more voices are heard, and therefore our country’s governing body is functioning at its best.”

A resolution Neguse introduced recently calls for addressing the biodiversity crisis, resulting from climate change.

“Climate change is the existential threat of our time. If gone unchecked, it will continue to impact our communities, and our lands and forests across Colorado,” Neguse said, applauding executive orders signed by Biden in the first week of his administration to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and halt new drilling leases on federal land.

Boebert, Buck versus Biden

Boebert is taking aim at the same Biden actions, including sponsoring a bill to block the government from signing on to the international climate accord.

Noting that her position on the House Natural Resources Committee gives Boebert “a strategic place to advance this agenda,” Ben Stout, her spokesman, pointed to a press release her office issued in late January describing “the devastating effects President Biden’s indefinite moratorium on new oil and natural gas leasing on public lands and offshore waters will have on Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.”

Boebert is also working on active forest management and plans to work with small businesses to address her district’s transportation needs, her spokesman said.

The controversial gun-rights advocate and restaurant owner joins three other Coloradans on the Natural Resources panel — Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette and Joe Neguse and Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn. Boebert will be the only House member from Colorado on the Budget committee.

Boebert also co-chairs of the Second Amendment Caucus in Congress.

“She is looking forward to working with this group to protect Americans' rights from the left,” Stout said.

Buck has also been pushing back on what a spokeswoman called “Biden’s attack on oil and gas jobs, which employ thousands of workers in the district.”

Topping Buck’s priorities this session is leading a bipartisan effort to rein in anticompetitive behavior by the largest tech companies, which he contends “crushes small businesses and conservative speech.”

“The Big Tech reckoning must come,” Buck tweeted recently. “The tech marketplace is suffering from monopolies and small companies cannot survive.”

Security matters

Lamborn, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said he will “advocate to fully fund our national defense budget and fortify our national security through amendments” in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022.

Lamborn said he’s also continuing his fight to “protect our traditional family values and the sanctity of life,” including with his first bill this session, to require abortion providers give women seeking abortions “information about reversing the procedure's effects.”

As a senior Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, he intends to work to undo Biden’s moratorium on oil and gas leases on public lands.

“These burdensome policies will hurt American families with higher energy prices during a time when they are recovering from a pandemic,” he said. “We should promote an all-of-the-above energy policy that ensures affordable, domestically produced energy, and security, for all Americans.”

Crow told Colorado Politics he’s hopeful Congress can tackle national problems without getting thrown by extremism .

“At the end of the day, people want government to work for themselves and their families, they want to buy a home, send their kids to college, have a job — that's where most people are," he said. "They don't want the yelling and the screaming and the vitriol; they just want people to do the work. I draw promise from that.”

On Feb. 1 Crow reintroduced legislation to close what he’s called the “Colorado loophole” in federal firearms law, which allows certain gun purchasers to obtain rifles and shotguns immediately when traveling in other states.

Crow also called on the Biden administration to end private immigration detention centers.

In a Jan. 28 letter to David Pekoske, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Crow and a contingent of House Democrats said private prison contracts lack transparency and accountability.

"The federal government has a responsibility to ensure the safe and humane treatment of those in its care, and that must be as true for individuals detained in private prisons in DOJ custody as it is for individuals detained in private prisons in the Department of Homeland Security custody,” the lawmakers wrote. "We stand ready to work with the Biden administration to end the use of private immigration detention facilities by ICE."

Pot banking

The SAFE Banking Act, a Perlmutter bill to allow legitimate marijuana businesses access to the banking system, made it out of the House in the last Congress on a wide, bipartisan margin but stalled in a Senate committee. Perlmutter said he’s confident it’s still an issue with support that crosses party lines, adding that Republican lawmakers have been among the proposal’s most effective evangelists.

“I think if we use that template, there are a number of things that can get done,” Perlmutter said. “Somebody like John Hickenlooper is going to look for places where there's common interest, and Biden is that way as well. You know me, I'm the eternal optimist. I think there are going to be some challenges, but I think there are places where we can work together.”

Perlmutter hopes to maintain funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, which boasts around 3,000 employees and contractors at what he called “the finest laboratory in the world on renewable energy and energy efficiency.”

He hopes to pass the GREEN Neighborhoods Act, legislation concerning energy efficiency and renewable energy in construction and real estate development that he’s been working on for years.

Perlmutter said it’s also a priority this session to advance NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to establish a base on the moon as a steppingstone to a mission to Mars in 2033, when the orbits of Earth and Mars bring the two planets closest to each other.

While numbers favor Colorado's Democrats in Congress, the clock might not. The party in power typically loses seats in the first midterm election.

Perlmutter acknowledged partisan tension is running high in the Capitol in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot but is hopeful Congress get some work done.

“It makes it hard, and it's going to take effort,” he said.

He enthused, however about the chance to accomplish a lot.

“It feels a lot better than having been in the minority,” Perlmutter said with a chuckle. “It's a lot of responsibility, no question about it. There's a lot of things that need to be addressed in this country and around the world. It's a big task ahead of us, but I think we're up to it.”

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