Senator Michael Bennet hardly looks like anyone’s idea of a progressive hero. The Colorado Democrat often uses his husky voice to discuss wonky topics like why Democrats should not lift the cap on state and local tax deductions that Republicans put in place with the Trump tax cuts, and sounds like the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools he once was.
“Well, look, I don’t think the American people sent us to Washington to cut taxes for rich people,” he told The Independent in an interview. “And the reality is we’ve had since 2001 about $8 trillion in tax cuts, almost all of that has gone to the wealthiest people in this country during a time when we’ve got the greatest income inequality that we’ve had since the late 1920s.”
When he ran for president in 2019 and 2020, he dropped out without winning any delegates and regularly criticised Medicare for All proposals by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as being unrealistic.
“I think I describe it as my not very well noticed presidential campaign,” he joked.
Mr Bennet launched his campaign largely after he gave a speech on the floor of the US Senate floor excoriating Republican Senator Ted Cruz during the government shutdown of 2018 and 2019. During that time, he criticised Mr Cruz for shutting down the government in 2013. But the viral moment failed to make him launch as progressives largely supported Mr Sanders and Ms Warren while moderate voters preferred his colleague Senator Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg while voters ultimately picked President Joe Biden.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and when Congress passed the CARES Act under the Trump administration, Mr Bennet teamed up with Senator Ron Wyden to tack on an additional $600 a week on unemployment insurance. That was reduced to $300 a week in Mr Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act.
Similarly, when Mr Biden passed his signature Covid relief legislation, he included another one of Mr Bennet’s policies that he championed during the 2020 presidential campaign: an expanded child tax credit that was fully refundable and gave families making $150,000 a year–and single parents making up to $112,500 for single-parent households–$300 a month for children for every child under six years old and $250 for children between six and 17 years old.
In turn, Mr Bennet has turned into one of the most prolific voices in politics not just on child poverty, but in general. He has worked with Mr Sanders – whom he criticised in the primary – to make sure the lift on the SALT Cap, a priority for Democrats in California, New York and New Jersey, isn’t a giveaway to the rich. Similarly, he was part of a group of eight senators who passed the 2013 immigration reform bill that ultimately died.
Mr Bennet said he was interested in passing policies he knew would be possible if he lost his presidential run and returned to Colorado, which is an evenly-divided state politically.
“And that’s what I set out to do and I think that’s what I did. And I’m glad there’s been some take up of those policies. I think there was a lot of overlap in a number of the things that I proposed and what Joe Biden ran on.”
It also helps that one of the early adopters of the tax credit was now in the White House. Initially, Mr Bennet introduced the credit through the American Family Act with Senator Sherrod Brown, a populist progressive from Ohio. But the second person to sign on as a cosponsor was then-California Senator Kamala Harris. A Bennet aide said on the condition of anonymity that the senator reached out to the Vice President before the Biden administration’s plan was passed through Congress.
Mr Bennet said he began thinking about child poverty when he was superintendent of Denver Public Schools, the role he held before he was appointed to fill the Senate seat of Ken Salazar, who joined the Obama administration as Secretary of Interior. Mr Bennet said he frequently saw parents who worked two or three jobs and still couldn’t get themselves out of poverty regardless of what they did.
“And what I know from that experience is that it’s not that people aren’t working, they’re working incredibly hard, but they cannot afford housing or healthcare, higher education or early childhood education,” he said. “But it’s the cost of those building blocks of liberating your kids from poverty or feeling like you’ve got a middle class life, the cost of those has outstripped the wage increases that people have had. And I came to see the Child Tax Credit as the most elegant way of trying to deal with that problem.”
Mr Bennet’s oldest friend in the Senate, fellow Coloradoan John Hickenlooper, hired him as his chief of staff when Mr Hickenlooper was Mayor of Denver.
“He has always been engaged on kids, in every facet, always,” Mr Hickenlooper said. “I’ve only been here a year, but I see him as one of the two or three or four real moving forces behind the child tax credit.”
Mr Hickenlooper, who went on to serve as governor of Colorado and also ran for president before dropping out to stage a successful challenge to Republican Senator Cory Gardner, said Mr Bennet has helped him learn the Senate.
“He’s been the best mentor I’ve ever had,” he said. “He’s been overly generous, exceedingly generous in his help.”
Mr Wyden, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee who worked with him on unemployment insurance, complimented his work as well.
“I went to school on a basketball scholarship and I don’t know of any higher compliment than to say that Michael Bennet comes to play every day,” he said, saying he and Mr Bennet had looked at unemployment for some time and said he had been negotiating with the Trump administration during the Covid-19 pandemic’s onset. “That bill was also historic in that it also covered gig workers.”
At the same time, Mr Bennet’s work on both issues is facing major political peril. Plenty of Republican governors ended the expanded unemployment insurance on the premise that it prevented people from seeking work and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell criticised the programme. Second, January marks the first month parents will not see the monthly payments, after Senator Joe Manchin killed fellow Democrats’ proposed Build Back Better Act and largely criticised the Child Tax Credit because he worried it went to people making too much money and wanted to make sure that it could go to grandparents raising children.
But a Bennet aide said that the senator told Mr Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia, that grandparents are already eligible because they can claim them on their taxes. Similarly, the aide noted how the credit is already means-tested.
For his part, Mr Bennet said he will continue speaking to Mr Manchin.
“I’ve given him a little bit of a break over the holidays, but I’ve talked to him extensively before then, and I’ll talk to him extensively again,” he said. “And the last thing we should be doing is doubling the rate of childhood poverty in this country.”
Republican Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who has crafted his own child tax credit plan, said he and Mr Bennet have discussed their different child tax credits.
“We both concluded it was a priority. I like my plan better than the president’s but I’d be happy to work with Democrats and do something together for good,” Mr Romney told The Independent and praised Mr Bennet, with whom he went rafting last year.
“He’s a very reasonable, thoughtful person who would, I believe, work in a collaborative, bipartisan manner, if that were an option,” he said, adding he hopes they can work together. “We can and have. I don’t think that’s in the currents but we’ll see if that happens down the road.”
Mr Bennet said he was actually impressed with Mr Romney’s tax credit, noting how the former GOP presidential nominee’s credit was more generous for children younger than six years old.
“So he’s got pay-fors in there that I don’t love, but do I think that it forms the basis of a potential bipartisan agreement to extend Child Tax Credit at some point, and to make it permanent? I really do. And I think what is going to happen with this is that over time it’s going to become popular with the American people.”
In addition, despite being a more moderate Democrat who is up for re-election, Mr Bennet also said he has become convinced that the filibuster as it currently stands is unworkable and needs to change.
“And frankly, what made me change my mind about it was, I don’t think we can compete with China with a minority of senators having a permanent detail on what the majority want to do,” he said. “I just don’t think democracy’s going to be able to compete with two hands tied behind our back, which is the effect of the modern day abuse of the filibuster.”
Mr Bennet’s words came the same week that his fellow moderate, Senator Kyrsten Sinema defended it. But Mr Bennet said that it would be one thing if it only existed once per year but now it has become an impediment to progress.
“And that means that senators representing 22% of the country can stop everybody else from doing what needs to be done,” he said. “That’s a far cry from what the founders wanted. So I believe that we can restore the Senate so that it’s not like the House, which is just purely a majoritarian body, but instead in the Senate where you have extended debate by forcing people, if they’re going to filibuster to be actually out on the floor, having a Mr Smith Goes to Washington debate.”