In Colorado Senate race, Michael Bennet still fights for child tax credit and immigration reform

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Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks at City Park in Denver, Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, at an event to draw attention to passage in Congress of the Inflation Reduction Act.

Incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet has a number of issues he’s still working on in the U.S. Senate. Chief among them is the expanded child tax credit that provides families with children monthly payments. 

The expanded tax credit was included on a temporary basis as part of the American Rescue Plan, and for six months families received up to $300 per child every month. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the tax credit cut child poverty in half nationwide. The tax credit expired at the end of 2021, but Bennet said in an interview with Colorado Matters that he’s working to make it permanent.

Another issue he’s been working on is the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. The bill would cap wages, increase the number of H-2A visas granted each year and provide many workers with a pathway to citizenship. The House passed their version of the bill last year, but Bennet said he’s working with Republicans to get the bill passed in the Senate.

While he’s still working on these issues, he pushed back against criticism toward him. Bennet said he’s an effective lawmaker, trying to fight against extremists in the Republican party.

Bennet is running against Republican businessman Joe O’Dea

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Senator Bennett, welcome.

Michael Bennet: Thank you for having me. It's good to be with you again.

Thomas Whitfield: One of your signature issues during your time in office has been the expanded child tax credit, which provides families with children monthly payments per child. It has been said to have kept 3 million children out of poverty, but the expansion has since expired. You've been trying to make it permanent. Where does that effort currently stand?

Bennet: Thank you for the question. We were able to reduce childhood poverty almost in half last year and reduce hunger in the United States by a quarter. As a result of the child tax credit, about 90 percent of Colorado's kids benefited from it. I'm fighting hard to try to make it permanent. As you said, I've been having discussions with Mitt Romney who has a similar proposal to mine. He's a Republican from Utah, and my hope is that in the lame duck session after the election, we're gonna be able to come to a bipartisan agreement about how to extend the child tax credit. I may not get every single thing that I want out of that agreement, but that's the nature of coming to a bipartisan agreement. And I'm working as recently as this morning to see if we can get it over the finish line.

Editor’s note: Over the course of six months, the expanded child tax credit reduced child poverty by about 30 percent, according to NPR.

Thomas Whitfield: Turning now to inflation, you've said yourself, it is a major concern for many Americans, including Coloradans, and there are many factors considered responsible for the rising inflation rates. But the Federal Reserve has said that COVID relief aid, which you supported, was a possible reason for rising prices. And some economists and lawmakers also worry that making the child tax credit permanent would lead to even more inflation. What is your response to that criticism?

Bennet: I would say on the child tax credit, I strongly disagree with that. I wish that families, which were getting an average of $450 a month, had that today to defray the cost of gas, to defray the cost of food. I mean, today the gas is $3.76 a gallon in Colorado. The cost of eggs is just over $3. These are very, very expensive. And if families had the benefit of this tax credit, it would defray those costs and it would not have been inflationary because it was paid for. So I think that's just a false argument. And of course, the benefits to the 90 percent of kids in Colorado that got it and, the poorest kids in America who got it, I think it's hard to overstate those benefits.

I've talked to mom after mom who said that the relief that they have felt, and their families have felt, as a result of the child tax credit was incredibly important to them. That's not surprising to me because we've had an economy that for 50 years has worked really well for the top 10 percent of Americans in Colorado, [but it] hasn't worked as well for everybody else. Even before this inflation that we're facing today, people were struggling with the rising cost of housing and healthcare and higher education and early childhood education.

It's a struggle for people to feel like they can stay in the middle class — or for the families I used to work for in the Denver Public Schools to feel like no matter what they do, they have a hard time keeping their kids out of poverty. Inflation is a struggle for families in an economy that's already tough for them. We have to fix these supply chains that have created this inflation all over the world. We have got to create an economy in America again that when it grows, it grows for everybody, not just the people at the very top.

Thomas Whitfield: Continuing on with inflation, Democrats recently passed the Inflation Reduction Act that includes a number of provisions like lowering prescription drug costs for Medicare beneficiaries, reducing the deficit and investment in renewable energy. However, even the nonpartisan congressional budget office said it will have a negligible effect on inflation this year and next. Is this enough to combat inflation?

Bennet: I don't think it's enough to combat inflation, but it's an important step toward dealing with the problems that I was just talking about a minute ago, in terms of rising costs for families. I mean, in this bill, we cap the cost of drugs for seniors at $2,000; We require Medicare for the first time to negotiate drug prices for the American people; And we cap insulin at $35 a month for seniors. We were trying to cap it for everybody at $35 a month, which would have made an immediate difference to many people that have used insulin in Colorado and across the country.

But unfortunately, the Republicans opposed that. My opponent in this race says there's nothing to like about that bill, even though it does all of those important things with respect to healthcare. Then on top of that, it puts America in the position to lead the entire world in the transformation that we're going to make over the next several decades to a clean energy economy. And I think that's going to be very good for Colorado's economy in the medium term and definitely in the long term.

Thomas Whitfield: Now, if this is a first step, what should be done next?

Bennet: I think passing the child tax credit at the end of the year would be extremely helpful to defraying the cost of inflation. And I think bringing our supply chains back to this country is what we really have to do. I mean, if you look at every single country in the world right now — every industrialized country in the world, anyway — we're facing almost the same inflation rates in Canada, in the European Union and even in India. The reason we're facing this is because these are global supply chain problems that are related to the COVID [pandemic] and the recovery of the economy, rising oil prices and energy prices as a result of that recovery, which has then been compounded by Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which is also dramatically affecting food prices.

And that explanation, I know, is cold comfort to people that are paying the kind of prices I was talking about earlier for gasoline and for bread and for other things. But that is fundamentally what we have to do is bring these supply chains home. We've just done that — not in the Inflation Reduction Act, but in the CHIPS Act, which is recognizing that 95 percent of the most important semiconductors in the world — that are critically important to our automobile sector, but also for our fighter jets — are all produced in Taiwan in a bipartisan way. We're going to bring that back. I think we're going to have to look at other supply chains as well to try to guard us against this kind of inflation.

The other thing I'm working on right now is a bill with a Republican colleague of mine to try to resolve the issues that we're facing with respect to agriculture. Part of the inflation that we've seen in the country is the result of there being an absence of labor in agriculture. If we can pass the Farm [Workforce] Modernization Act through the Senate and get it signed by the President, that could help us lower some cost.

Thomas Whitfield: Continuing on an earlier point, the Inflation Reduction Act includes a sizable investment for renewable energy. But the fossil fuel industry is a major part of the state's economy. How do you propose helping communities that rely on this industry to make that transition?

Bennet: There is no way that we're going to make any progress on climate without addressing the needs of places like Craig, Colorado and Mesa, Colorado and in the northwest part of our state. I think that it's a fool's errand to try to make progress without doing that. Some of the provisions that I fought for in this bill are directed exactly at trying to help those communities. There [are] billions of dollars in this bill for direct pay [tax credits] so that our rural co-energy co-ops are going to be able to benefit from tax credits that historically they haven't benefited from; That for-profit entities have benefited from.

The millions of dollars that's in this bill for rural communities [in Colorado] to transition from the place they are to a cleaner energy economy — this transition is not going to happen overnight. One of the reasons it's been difficult to make progress is that the opponents of making progress claim that we want to turn fossil fuels off today or tomorrow, and that's not true.

Every study that tells us that we have to transition for the sake of our climate acknowledges that in 2050, even when we have to be at net zero, we're still going to be using fossil fuels in this country. I think the Inflation Reduction Act reflects that. The reason why Mitch McConnell will never be able to reverse it is because it is so important for our solar industry; It is so important for our wind industry; And it does give certainty to our fossil fuel industry that they're going to be around for a while. 

And anybody who cares about [helping] Europe in the fight against Putin for the benefit of Ukraine needs to realize that our exports of liquified natural gas from the United States is going to be an important part of that battle.

Thomas Whitfield: One area that you've been trying to find common ground on is immigration for farm workers, specifically in the Farm Workforce Modernization Act. If passed, it would help Colorado's agriculture industry by capping wages, increasing the number of H-2A visas and providing a pathway to citizenship. The house passed its version of the bill last year. What is preventing the Senate from getting this done?

Bennet: What's preventing it is that there are Republicans in the Senate that just want to continue to pound the bruise of the southern border and use it for political benefit in this election cycle instead of addressing the problem. When you see these governors sending migrants to other states, that's not going to help with this situation at the southern border. 

I've been critical of the Biden Administration; I don't think they have a plan on the southern border, either. As you said, I've worked for many years on this issue. I mean, in 2013, I was one of the eight people in the Senate who wrote a comprehensive immigration bill that we passed — the Gang of Eight bill — with 68 votes in the Senate that had a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people. [It had] the most progressive Dream Act that had ever been written, and had $40 billion and dealt with the agriculture issues that we're now trying to deal with.

Editor’s note: In 2013, Bennet was part of a bipartisan group of senators working toward immigration reform which included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. Negotiations broke down when prominent Republicans criticized the effort.

It had $40 billion of border security in it, but it wasn't Donald Trump's medieval wall. It was for 21st century border security, and it would let us see every inch of the border. That's what we have to get back to again. That's what we have to figure out how to come together on because we're damaging our economy. We have farmers and ranchers in Colorado who are having to get out of their businesses because they can't hire people.

Thomas Whitfield: Speaking of Republican Governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, do you worry that they might do something similar in Colorado? Perhaps in Denver, which is considered a sanctuary city?

Bennet: They'll do whatever they think is in their narrow political interest. It's not in the country's interest. And, and I hope that they won't.

Thomas Whitfield: In 2018, you and 86 of your Senate colleagues voted for the criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, which was signed into law by Donald Trump. Given the rise in crime in fentanyl, was that bill a mistake?

Bennet: I absolutely don't think that that bill was a mistake. In fact, I think we should do more to reform our prison system. The mass incarceration in this country is a stain on the United States of America. We have a system of mass incarceration that looks different than almost any other country in the world. So I think there's more we need to do to reform our system.

I do think it's important for us to deal with this scourge of fentanyl in our society. We've got to work with our allies to push back on China where the precursor chemicals are made, and on Mexico where the fentanyl actually is made to try to keep it from pouring into our country.

The other thing we have to do is make sure that we have a criminal justice system where people can actually recover from their addictions, not be put out on the street and in even worse shape than they went to begin with. That's something that I think we haven't really done as a society. I think it'd be an important step forward.

Thomas Whitfield: Back to the First Step Act, if you don't support harsher sentencing, what is your answer to rising crime rates?

Bennet: My answer to rising crime rates is that we should prosecute people that have committed crimes, and we should do everything that we can do to try to get people [into] recovery if they are addicted to drugs. Fentanyl obviously is a different kind of drug, but I think that's where our focus needs to be. And I think we have to make sure that we support police officers who are doing this very, very difficult work. That's why I've just voted for a 30-percent increase in the cops’ money a year in Washington D.C. as part of the American Rescue Plan.

Thomas Whitfield: Now, moving on to abortion. After the Supreme Court handed down a ruling reversing Roe v. Wade, you said, "Now was the time to elect Democratic lawmakers to enshrine abortion access on a federal level." But Democrats have held majorities in both chambers and held the presidency several times since Roe v. Wade was first put into effect. Why hasn't Congress been able to accomplish this over the last 50 years?

Bennet: It really wasn't an issue before the Congress because Roe v. Wade had established a fundamental constitutional right to choose in this country. I don't think anybody around here thought that the Supreme Court, at least until very recently, would ever reverse that fundamental right. Now we know that the plan all along for the last 40 years by Mitch McConnell and his Republican allies was to strip the American people of this fundamental right. That's why I think it's vitally important that we elect pro-choice majorities to the Senate and to the House, and to the State House in Colorado as well, so we can enshrine a woman's right to choose as the law of the land.

Thomas Whitfield: Speaking of elections, if you are re-elected in November and you serve out a full six-year term, you would become Colorado's longest-serving U.S. Senator in the century since state legislatures stopped selecting senators. You spend a lot of time talking about how the Senate is broken, but what would serving another term do to accomplish fixing the problems you have identified?

Bennet: I have talked a lot about how the Senate is broken, because for a lot of the time that I've been here, it has been broken. It's been broken because of the obstruction of Mitch McConnell. It's been broken because of the chaos that Donald Trump rained down on the United States of America. And it's been broken for other reasons: like the fact that 50 percent of the people that leave here and don't retire become lobbyists in Washington, D.C. 

But let me say, over the last year, we made a lot of progress. We passed the American Rescue Plan; we passed the bipartisan infrastructure law; we passed the bipartisan postal reform bill; we passed the bipartisan gun safety law; we passed the most important extension in veterans benefits that we've had in a generation; we passed the bipartisan CHIPS Act; and the Inflation Reduction Act.

In the last year, we've been able to get a bunch of things done. My hope is that if I come back, I can help ensure that together we can build an economy that, when it grows, it grows for everybody.

I think the economy we have today is a threat to our democracy because too many of our families feel like no matter how hard they work, they can't live a middle-class life or they can't lift their kids out of poverty. 

In addition, it would be important for us to make sure that everybody in America has the chance to vote the way people in Colorado have the chance to vote. All of the bills that I've written over the years are bills — whether to protect public lands or related to energy or related to healthcare — that I've written in Colorado, not in Washington, D.C. That's a perspective that Washington, I think, has benefited from.

Thomas Whitfield: You have talked about all that you have accomplished, but the Republicans have noted that you have not been able to pass the child tax credit, the CORE Act and past efforts on immigration — and they are saying that this shows your ineffectiveness in Congress. What's your response?

Bennet: I think that's ridiculous. That list of things proves that I've been effective. There isn't anybody else in the Congress who can claim that their bill last year reduced childhood poverty almost in half; [It] cut hunger in America by a quarter. There has not been a senator for generations who can make that claim. Unlike my opponent, I'm fighting to try to make that permanent.

I'm deeply sorry that the Republicans elected a president who was as anti-immigrant as Donald Trump was, and has made it as difficult for us as a country to succeed at this. But I can assure you that when we do succeed at this, I will be in the middle of that. 

On public lands, I have been fighting for the Core Act for more than 10 years over Republican opposition. This is the most important public lands bill that — if we pass it — Colorado has seen in a quarter of a century. It hasn't passed because the Republican Party has turned itself against the national level against public lands and refuses to move public lands bills. That's why I'm working with the Biden administration to see if there might be an administrative way for us to at least protect Camp Hale before the last veterans who trained at that incredibly important iconic place in Colorado [miss] the chance to see that it's going to be preserved.

And by the way, I did just pass one of the very few public lands bills in this Congress that has passed: Which was the bill to protect Camp Amache on the Southeastern Plains of Colorado. So I think I'm one of the most effective senators in the place. I know some people probably think the bar is pretty low, and I think that's pretty fair. But every day that I've come to work, I've tried to do that work in the name of the people of Colorado, whether they voted for me or whether they didn't vote for me.

Whitfield: Senator Bennett, thank you.

Bennet: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it, Chandra.