Colorado's Sen. Bennet On His Narrow Election Win

Renee Montagne talks with Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet about his very close election last week and what he and other Democrats plan for the next Senate session.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of the tightest Senate races in this election was in Colorado. Voters didn't find out until the next morning that Democrat Michael Bennet beat Tea Party Republican Ken Buck with 1 percent of the vote. Senator Bennet is an incumbent, but he didn't run before. He was appointed to fill a vacant seat. The campaign in Colorado attracted more donations from outside groups than any other race in the country: $32 million.

I spoke with Michael Bennet at member station KUVO in Denver. His first words after being reelected were: We have to take a fresh approach to our system of government.

Senator MICHAEL BENNET (Democrat, Colorado): I think what people see when they're watching Washington are a bunch of politicians that are fighting with each other. And I think we have to find a way to elevate a set of policy proposals so that we can get out of the muck and into a place where people feel like the work in Washington is relevant to them.

MONTAGNE: The Senate is expected to take up the Bush tax cuts in this upcoming lame-duck session. You're a sitting senator. Do you think the Democrats give in on extending them to the wealthiest Americans, and should they? And is that the way you'll vote?

Sen. BENNET: Well, what I have suggested is that we extend all the tax cuts for a year. My priority is the extension of the middle-class tax cuts. But the reason I've suggest we do it for a year is, one, because I think there is going to need to be compromise here. But two, we need to have a conversation about how we're going to pay for these tax cuts, you know, that - which seems to be lost in the current political discussion that we're having right now. And I think we've got to figure out how to start paying our way here.

MONTAGNE: Okay, let's talk about another issue that touches people pretty strongly emotionally, and that's the new health care law. You're on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Democrats still control the Senate's agenda. Do you expect to revisit any aspects of the health care law?

Sen. BENNET: I think we will. I think we didn't do enough the first time around cost containment. There's more to be done there to change the Medicare incentive structure. I also had an amendment that I wanted passed the last time that wasn't passed that basically said, look. We've made a lot of promises on the money we're going to save here over the next 10 years and 20 years. And we ought to honor that commitment by saying if we don't save the money we say we're going to save, that we are going to take it out in some other way.

I think part of the problem we face here is there's such cynicism about the work that's being done, and we can't allow ourselves to become cynical about this. For better or for worse, and whether it's unfair or fair, the burden of the reform, in the end, lies on the shoulders of the reformer. And in the context of health care, if you don't do a good job of explaining it on the front-end, people can make up things like death panels as ways of defeating the reform.

MONTAGNE: You beat a candidate, a Tea Party candidate who had some pretty strong views on, and was willing to cut deeply into some entitlements that most Americans seem to embrace. Some will argue the only way to bring down the national debt would be to tackle those. Is there any entitlement that you're willing to tackle in a way that is probably unpopular?

Sen. BENNET: Yeah. Well, in the first place, we can't solve our budget crisis without dealing with our entitlements. I mean, 17 percent of our operating budget is non-defense discretionary, 18 percent is defense. That leaves 65 percent, which is Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and interest on the debt. And, in my view, there are things we can do with Medicare to continue the work that we've already tried to do what health care reform, which is to change the incentive structure of Medicare so that we create more efficiency and higher quality at the same time. That's not rocket science. It's doable. It's hard to politics, but we can do it.

I think Social Security is easier, in many respects. I mean, people that are my age, 45, know that if this system exists as it is today, there's not going to be anything left for us. I think it's a conversation that we can have with the American people. It's certainly a conversation I've had in town halls all over the state of Colorado, Democratic and Republican town hall meetings. And people are a lot more sensible about these things here than they are when you get them caught in the maw of the special interest groups that are operating in Washington, D.C. Somehow, we have to find a way to recreate the conversations that we're having out in our states - at least we had during the campaign here in Colorado and Washington.

MONTAGNE: Senator Michael Bennet, Democrat from Colorado. Thanks very much for talking with us.

Sen. BENNET: Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Your listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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