U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner

U.S. Sen Cory Gardner didn't think much of a federal stimulus package of nearly $1 billion a decade ago, but he's a chief advocate of the nearly $2.2 trillion package he and other Senate Republicans helped pass Thursday.

"You can't compare the two," he said in a phone interview with Colorado Politics on Thursday afternoon.

The senator said it was an 'apples to oranges' comparison. 

"What happened 10 years ago is you had some bad actors who were doing bad things and they brought the economy down, and some of those very industries causing the pain turned around and asked for the bailouts," he said.

"This was not caused by anyone, other than an invisible enemy that we have to combat, Republicans and Democrats, not as partisan warriors."

He acknowledged the staggering amount of debt and government spending in the bill.

"This is a massive undertaking, because we have a massive challenge on our hands," he said.

Gardner wouldn't bite on critiquing President Trump's performance ("I don't get into that game"), or the president's timeline of restarting the economy by Easter, April 12.

"I'd like to get the economy going again as soon as we can," he said. "I don't think there's anyone out there who's rooting to keep the economy down. What we know is we have to flatten the curve, stop the spread and that means right now we're listening to and following the directions of the advice and science of our public health experts."

He defended his vote that helped kill a Republican amendment that would have stripped unemployment compensation for some low-earning workers — the one that Sen. Lindsey Graham said would work as an incentive against working and instead encourage people to seek or stay on unemployment.

An Eastern Plains farmer, Gardner called Graham's argument "horse guff."

"I don't think people are going to look at COVID-19 and say, 'Yep, COVID-19, jackpot, I'm going to quit my job ' ... The fact is you're not eligible for unemployment insurance if you quit your job," Gardner said.

Gardner helped craft the unemployment insurance plank of the plan, and he said Thursday he likes it because it relies on existing programs that can most quickly get money to people who are directly affected, while the ramped up and scaled to meet precise needs in a changing economic environment.

The Senate passed the third and largest U.S. relief package for the global pandemic early Thursday, with Gardner and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Denver, voting in support. 

Gardner said getting assistance to people — workers and small businesses — was the most important part of the package, as well as billions for the national stockpile of medical equipment, hospitals and research on COVID-19.

The bill includes $1,200 for people who earn up to $75,000 a year, and less for those who make more, plus $500 per child.

It also includes money for medical supplies and personal protective equipment, and funding for tele-health services, rural hospitals,  and schools and remote learning.

Gardner and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat from Denver, urged President Trump to fund the Colorado National Guard to help in the COVID-19 response. The CARES Act included $1.4 billion for National Guard deployments nationwide.

Republican U.S. Reps. Ken Buck of Windsor and Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs took to Twitter on Thursday to blast the fat in the Senate GOP-backed bill.

Gardner is facing especially intense scrutiny. He is one of the most endangered Republicans in the Senate, after his narrow win six years ago and President Trump's sustained lack of popularity in a state trending to the left.

Rocky Mountain Values, an advocacy group that harangues Gardner, threaded the needle between Gardner, the Republican, and Bennet, the Democrat, Thursday.

“Even in a national emergency and at a time when Colorado families are in desperate need of assistance, Senator Gardner put special interests and big corporations first," said spokesperson Vanessa Harmoush, the former communications assistant to the state House Democrats. "Senator Gardner supported a bill that his party put forward that excludes universal paid sick leave, creates a secret corporate slush fund with practically no oversight and failed to deliver enough aid to workers. In short, he failed to lead and stand up to his party."

On the other hand, "We thank Senator Michael Bennet for working to ensure there was some oversight and accountability in this bill that puts workers ahead of corporations," Harmoush said.

Bennet, however, praised the deal.

“The bipartisan agreement features provisions that we fought hard to secure, including a significantly larger commitment to our front-line health care workers and hospitals, historic expansions of unemployment benefits to support our workers, increased support for small businesses, direct assistance to the most vulnerable Americans and much stronger transparency and accountability," he said in a statement.

Bennet added, “I am grateful to everyone who set aside politics and rose to our nation’s moment of need.”

The relief package had other allies among the Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis.

“As this pandemic continues, Coloradans should not be forced to go it alone and need the federal government to step up for the economic recovery. Thank goodness people will be getting a$1,200 cash payment and $500 per child," Polis said in a statement. "It doesn’t make up for the lost income, but it helps. I am grateful to Senator Bennet and Senator Gardner for their work to craft and shape this bipartisan bill,” Polis said. “I’m also thrilled to see small business support beyond loans and additional help beyond the $1200 payment to hard-hit workers, including those self-employed or making their way in Colorado’s gig economy, the bill more than doubles the average unemployment benefit by adding $600 to the weekly benefit.”

Bennet is planning a telephone town hall with constituents Friday at noon.

Colorado's former governor also said the bill was necessary on several fronts, though John Hickenlooper is vying to unseat Gardner this year and last year he was running for president to unseat Trump.

"This bill is a necessary step to getting resources to hospitals on the frontlines of this epidemic, helping working families pay their bills, and extending unemployment insurance to self-employed freelance and gig workers," Hickenlooper said in a statement Thursday. "Now we need to see how quickly we can get relief to the people who need it."

Hickenlooper — who presided over fires, floods and mass shootings as governor — said there was more to be done.

"Families need housing protections, rural communities need support as they combat the epidemic, and we need improved protections to make sure these resources go to small businesses and workers — not into the pockets of the wealthiest and biggest corporations. Congress needs to put partisanship aside and work together to deliver results for the American people," he said.

Senate candidate Trish Zornio, a biomedical research scientist and University of Colorado educator, sees a steady stream of missed opportunities to effectively take on the pandemic early on and going forward.

“Gardner has failed to champion science-backed pandemic response protocols and Coloradans are paying the price with our jobs, finances and lives," she said in a text message. "The federal government needs to step up and issue 14-day national stay-at-home orders, increased testing, contract tracing, ventilator and PPE (personal protective equipment) production via the Defense Production Act, removal of VP Mike Pence as charge and reinstatement of the directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense within the National Security Council — and this is just some of what should have already been done.”

Andrew Romanoff, who won the Democratic preference poll at the March 7 statewide caucuses, is planning a virtual town hall on coronavirus Friday at noon.

"This pandemic will cost millions of lives and plunge our nation into an even deeper recession unless we take bold action now," he told Colorado Politics Thursday. "That requires far more than a $1,200 check. It means putting our health care system and manufacturers on war footing; making testing and treatment free and available to all; requiring Americans to stay at home for all but essential activities; and sustaining families and small businesses throughout this crisis and the recovery that follows."

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