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Colorado leaders bridge the divide

‘Collaboration’ the word for Sens. Gardner, Bennet

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It might be a hyper-partisan political world, but some states have senators from different parties.

Although one might expect that a Democrat and a Republican from the same state might stick to their partisan issues, all 11 states in the 115th Congress with senators from different parties have had their senators work together on at least one bill.

“In the Senate, unless you have a very large majority, you have to get some buy-in from the minority party. It changes how much bipartisanship you need,” said Laurel Harbridge Yong, an associate professor of political science at Northwestern University.

In Colorado, Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and Republican Sen. Cory Gardner are among the senators from the same state and different political parties who work together on legislation the most.

“Coloradans sent us to Washington with the expectation that we’ll work together for the good of our state. Cory and I have tried to ignore the dysfunction and work constructively for Colorado,” Bennet said.

In the 115th Congress, Bennet and Gardner have worked together on eight bills to date. In the 114th Congress, they collaborated on 23 bills.

Yong said that split state delegations can increase bipartisanship because “they may have common interests…(and) they may see similar electoral concerns. The electoral environment that produces the split state delegation can also lead to them working together.”

Only two states in the 115th Congress, Florida and Montana, and three states in the 114th Congress, Florida, Ohio and New Hampshire, had senators who worked together on more bills. West Virginia currently has an equal number of bills to Colorado that its senators have united on.

“To the extent that split state delegations like Colorado ... put forward things that would get the supermajority’s support, it can both help the majority produce a record of success, but also help the minority claim some policy victories,” Yong said.

Out of all the states with a split delegation, Indiana has the least bipartisan cooperation based on co-sponsored bills. In the 114th Congress, Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly and Republican Sen. Dan Coats worked together on four bills. In the 115th Congress, Donnelly and Republican Sen. Todd Young have worked together on two bills so far.

Still, co-sponsoring legislation isn’t the only measure of bipartisan efforts. Donnelly was ranked as the second-most bipartisan member of the Senate by the Lugar Center and the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University.

The art of bipartisanship, though, seems to be on the decline.

“In the last 30 years, we’ve found that we’ve gone from about a third of the Senate voting together to about 4 percent or less,” said James Thurber, distinguished professor in the Department of Government at American University, referring to bipartisan support for legislation.

“Partisanship and ultimate polarization and gridlock stem from what’s happening in society with our voters,” he said. “The polarization of the Senate stems from the polarization of the electorate.”

To combat that, the lines of communication between Bennet and Gardner’s offices are open, with the senators’ staffs working together regularly on legislation and issues.

Depending on the issue, the senators might bring up a bill to each other personally, or their staffs might work directly with their counterparts in the other senator’s office. Some issues, such as the Gold King Mine spill and overspending at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Aurora, are ones where the senators work closely.

They usually decide who will introduce a bill based on which of them is in a committee related to the bill’s topic. According to an aide to Gardner who spoke on the condition of anonymity, there are no turf wars between the senators.

The relationship between the two began after a tense campaign in 2014 where Bennet worked to get Gardner’s opponent, former Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colorado, re-elected.

But Bennet and Gardner came together to “try to be a model for other delegations,” according to a Senate aide.

They went on a “wheat tour” of the Eastern Plains, Gardner’s stomping ground, and a tour of the Denver Public Schools, where Bennet was superintendent.

According to Gardner’s aide, they aren’t “just two guys who are from different parties, they are friends.”

Unlike other split state delegations, the two senators often do joint TV interviews for things such as their shutdown bill and talking about Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“I really wish the rest of Washington, D.C., operated more like the entire Colorado congressional delegation does, and hopefully, we can be an example of the good things that can happen through bipartisanship,” Gardner said.

The two senators talk to each other often about Colorado, and Gardner has told people that he wants to bring more Colorado to Washington.

“I have constituents from all backgrounds, and I’m not doing my job if I’m not listening to people from the left, right and center. Coloradans largely aren’t focused on an elected official’s political party – they are concerned the work that person is doing best represents them,” Gardner said.

Colorado is about one-third Democrat, one-third Republican and one-third unaffiliated, so the senators say they are best representing their constituents when they find consensus.

Gardner said, “Michael and I will always try our best to come to agreements on policies that we can move forward to benefit Coloradans, even if we aren’t going to agree on every issue.”

Shira Stein is a reporting intern for the Herald in Washington, D.C., and a student at American University. Reach her at sstein@durangoherald.com and follow her on Twitter @stein_shira.

The breakdown

In the current Congress, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and West Virginia have one senator from each major party. In the 114th Congress, all those states plus Illinois and New Hampshire had one senator from each major party.

In both Congresses, Vermont and Maine had one senator in the Independent party and one senator who is a Democrat or Republican. Vermont and Maine were not included in this article’s count of states with senators from different parties because partisanship in the Senate primarily occurs between Democrats and Republicans.

There have been changes in the senators in some of these states from the 114th Congress to the 115th Congress. Indiana and Nevada each had one senator who retired after the 114th Congress, and those two senators were replaced by politicians from the same party.

Illinois and New Hampshire each had a Republican senator who was ousted by a Democrat for the 115th Congress, which meant that those two states no longer had two senators from different political parties.

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