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Courtesy of Michael Bennet

“I Couldn’t Be Silent.” Sen. Michael Bennet Wants to End Government Shutdowns

The Colorado Democrat spoke to 5280 about his viral takedown of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on the Senate floor, what's next in the border debate, and his fight to protect public lands.

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As simmering discontent over a record-long government shutdown boiled over last week, Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet reached his own personal tipping point. Widely known as an even-tempered and congenial moderate, Bennet’s fiery takedown of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) on January 24 seemed to encapsulate a certain widespread sentiment. In less than eight hours, a viral video of Bennet’s speech gained more views than any other C-SPAN video from the Senate floor—and spurred speculation that the Centennial State senator is prepping for a presidential run.

“I wasn’t planning on this,” Bennet told 5280 in an interview this week. But he happened to be sitting on the Senate floor when Cruz advocated for a bill that would pay members of the U.S. Coast Guard without re-opening the government. It was in this moment that Bennet flashed back to 2013, when Cruz played an instrumental role in shutting down the federal government over funding for the Affordable Care Act while Colorado was deluged by massive floods. (The Senator from Texas even recited Dr. Seuss in his marathon speech.) The 16-day government shutdown that followed ultimately delayed disaster relief for Colorado, where nine people died and more than 1,800 homes were destroyed.

“These crocodile tears that the senator from Texas is crying for first responders are too hard for me to take,” Bennet said in an emotional 25-minute speech. “When the Senator from Texas shut this government down in 2013, my state was flooded. It was under water. People were killed. People’s houses were destroyed. Their small businesses were ruined forever. And because of the senator from Texas, this government was shut down for politics.” (You can watch the full speech here).

Bennet spoke to 5280 about what led to his unplanned outburst, what’s next in the ongoing border debate, and his priorities for 2019 and beyond.

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5280: Your frustration on the Senate floor last week struck a chord with many Americans. What was the tipping point that led to your speech?

Michael Bennet: Specifically, what had led up to it was that I knew that Ted Cruz had shut the government down [in 2013] and was reading Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor when Colorado was flooded and people’s homes were destroyed. People all over our state were working very hard to use every resource they could to rebuild and to work together to save each other’s futures. And it stood in such stark contrast to what was going on in Washington that I have never forgotten it.

So, to see Sen. Cruz out on the floor, claiming that he had any care for whether Coast Guard people were paid or not, was just so inconsistent with his behavior up until that point. It was just another political trick that he was trying to play on the American people to politicize the shutdown. And having seen what I had seen—the destruction in Colorado and the devastation in people’s lives that happened in 2013—I just felt that I couldn’t be silent.

Now that the government is temporarily re-opened (until February 15), what’s next in the border security debate?

There is not any doubt that Democrats have supported border security before. We have worked on it for a long time. As recently as last year, I was part of the “Gang of Six” that wrote an immigration bill to try to give the president a political solution on his wall and also allow us to protect the Dreamers [undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children].

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Unfortunately, that bill is what provoked the president to refer to African countries the way he referred to African countries (editor’s note: President Trump referred to African nations as “shithole countries” during a meeting with lawmakers to discuss immigration last January), and he walked away from a completely legitimate bipartisan compromise. Frankly, I think we gave him more than we should, but it doesn’t matter. He walked away from it.

Now, once again, he’s making threats and the problem my Republican colleagues have here is that they have absolutely no idea where the President of the United States is going to be on any given day—on this issue, or frankly, on any issue. That makes it very hard to have a negotiation.

I think we’re going to find that at the end of the day, President Trump is going to have to be persuaded by somebody that he wants to accept a deal instead of having a government shutdown. In any case, whether we reach a deal or whether we don’t reach a deal, the government should never be shut down again as far as I’m concerned. That sort of hostage-taking should not be part of our political system. I have heard my Republican friends here say that shutdowns always end badly, and you know what, they’re right. They always end badly—most of all for the American people. The estimate I saw last week is that the shutdown we went through cost our economy $3 billion. That’s not chump change.

Let’s shift topics a bit: On Monday, you introduced the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act with Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Boulder) to protect more than 400,000 acres of public land in Colorado and safeguard outdoor recreation opportunities. Why do you feel the timing is right for such an ambitious bill?

Public lands are central to our identity as a state and to our economy. The last public lands bill for Colorado that was signed into law was over 25 years ago with the Colorado Wilderness Act [of 1993]. It had great bipartisan support, as I hope this bill will, as well.

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The CORE ACT includes four bills that I have been working on for a decade. I think the timing is right partly because of the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show [which wrapped up in Denver on February 1]. It’s a wonderful outcome for Colorado that the Outdoor Retailer Show decided to move to our state. It’s great for our economy, but it also reflects who we are as a state and it’s emblematic of our brand as an outdoor rec-focused state. I think this bill is, as well.

It’s important to remember that the bill was written by people in Colorado and not by lawmakers in Washington D.C. Each of the four components of the CORE Act was written in a way that reflects the priorities of the communities. Most broadly the bill protects approximately 400,000 acres of public land of Colorado, including really iconic places like the Thompson Divide and the San Juan Mountains.

It designates nearly 73,000 acres of new wilderness in places like the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge and Mount Sneffels in Southwest Colorado. And it designates another 80,000 acres for recreation and conservation, so Coloradans can continue to hike, hunt, and mountain bike in the places they love. Importantly, it also includes the first-ever national historic landscape to honor our 10th Mountain Division’s legacy at Camp Hale. And it formally establishes the boundary for the Curecanti National Recreation Area and prohibits new oil and gas drilling in the Thompson Divide.

These are bills that reflect a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of Coloradans. You’re never going to write something that everybody will agree with, but there is a strong consensus among the counties and a strong consensus in our state that makes this a very good time to pursue this bill. And we are going to work very hard to find a way to get it passed.

What are your other top legislative priorities for this session?

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The CORE Act certainly is one. Another one is the American Family Act, which is a bill that I will be reintroducing soon that would completely overhaul the existing federal child tax credit to better support middle class families and reduce child poverty.

While the economy is growing and GDP is growing, people’s wages are not growing in many places. The challenges of being able to afford healthcare, higher education, early childhood education, and housing are making it very hard for people to live middle-class lives.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump’s deficit-busting tax bill achieved exactly the opposite of what we should be achieving. It is actually serving to increase the opportunity gap in this country rather than trying to reduce it. My bill will be more than a gesture in that direction.

You’ve stated that you are thinking about a presidential run. Are you still considering entering the race in 2020?

I don’t have an update yet—but I will let you know when I do.

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This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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