Colorado U.S. Sens. Bennet, Hickenlooper lay out lame duck hopes

As the final weeks of this Congress tick by — and an end to Democrats’ trifecta control in Washington, D.C., looms — U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet hopes to leverage a slew of must-pass bills into a reincarnation of the expanded child tax credit.

In particular, Bennet sees an opportunity in a research-and-development tax credit that businesses want to see reinstated. While he supports that tax credit, he doesn’t see why it should pass when millions of kids live in poverty.

“It’s an important tax credit, but I don’t think we should be doing it without expanding the child tax credit,” Bennet said in an interview recently.

While that provision is top of mind for Bennet, it’s not all he and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, a fellow Colorado Democrat, hope to knock out in the handful of remaining weeks in this Congress. The final dash of legislation comes with a sense of urgency from the senators as they note the political realities of the upcoming partisan split of Congress. When they return in 2023, Democrats will continue to control the Senate, though Republicans will have a narrow hold over the House of Representatives.

“We do not have to accept this level of childhood poverty”

Bennet has long championed the expanded child tax credit and helped secure its inclusion in 2021’s American Rescue Plan Act. Under that temporary program, parents received $300 per month and per child younger than 6, and $250 per month for children 6 and older. It scaled lower if households made higher incomes.

It only lasted about half a year, however, and expired in January. U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, tilted the odds against its continuation in an evenly split Senate. He cited concerns about inflation and that it discouraged people from working.

Despite its short lifespan, the Census Bureau credited it with nearly halving childhood poverty in the country. Its analysis found that the expanded tax credit lifted some 5.3 million Americans, most of whom are children, out of poverty. That doesn’t include the millions more who weren’t in poverty but otherwise benefited from the expanded credits.

“What we proved the last year was that we do not have to accept this level of childhood poverty as a permanent feature of our economy, or a permanent feature of our democracy,” Bennet said.

Bennet doesn’t think a new expanded credit would look exactly like what was in effect last year. In addition to the direct checks, it eliminated minimum income requirements to qualify and expanded the amount of tax credit families qualified for. Bennet had a particular eye for expanding qualifications to cover as many kids as possible.

“We’re the richest country in the world, and we have the third highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world,” Bennet said. “I think it’s shameful that the poorest kids don’t have access to the full credit and kids whose parents make $400,000 a year do have access to the full credit.”

Bennet sees opportunities for some kind of expanded tax credit and is hopeful for bipartisan support on it. U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, has in particular been “a true champion” for the tax credit, he said.

As for concerns about the expanded credit stoking inflation, Bennet argues it accounts for a minimal percentage of the country’s total economic output. An offset to pay for it would also by definition not increase inflation, while directly blunting inflation’s effects on families, he said.

“Imperative” to work during lame duck — and before GOP takes control of House

In addition to the expanded child tax credit, Bennet also outlines priorities for Colorado River Basin preservation and the immigration-focused Farm Workforce Modernization Act.

Bennet doubts the tax credit and immigration bill in particular would be well received by a Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives. He recalled the Gang of Eight immigration reform bill that passed the Senate with bipartisan support in 2013, only to stall when Republican House leadership declined to bring it up.

The upcoming Republican House of Representatives “makes it imperative that we try to figure out how to get something done in the lame-duck session,” Bennet said.

Hickenlooper, entering his first lame-duck session as a senator but having presided over others as governor of Colorado, shared Bennet’s urgency — and not just about the House.

“We’ve heard enough rumblings that the Senate is going to try to go back to that untraditional approach of just trying to slow thing down and make sure Democrats don’t get a lot of victories,” Hickenlooper said, though noting it’s not a universal sentiment among his Republican colleagues.

Hickenlooper will push a “laundry list” of bills to cover issues he considers vital, though he doesn’t specifically plan to leverage other must-pass legislation the way Bennet does.

His priorities include the Electoral Count Reform Act, which aims to clarify the vice president’s role in certifying presidential elections and how to object to the count — and eliminate the pretext behind the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. That one doesn’t have a clear must-pass bill it might attach to, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled support and may help expedite it, he said.

Another, the ORBITS Act, aims to look at the “almost million pieces of junk flying around there at super-fast speeds,” Hickenlooper said. That one is a simple safety issue, he said. Hickenlooper also sees a faint path forward for the SAFE Banking act. The bill would stop federal banking regulators from penalizing institutions that work with legitimate cannabis businesses. It could be a candidate for attaching to a larger bill, or as a point of compromise, but Hickenlooper didn’t make any promises.

Hickenlooper sees more opportunity with the bipartisan Upper Colorado and San Juan River Basins Recovery Act, which already passed the House and would continue recovery programs on the waterway.

“With that, we’re out of time,” Hickenlooper said. “We should have gotten this done five years ago. We could see it coming, but I think nobody really believed the drought would be this bad. We try to put our time into what looks plausible to get done, and what’s important.”

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