Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet predicted the next Congress will pass an immigration reform bill substantially similar to the one he helped write as a member of the Gang of Eight, and his Republican opponent, Darryl Glenn, promised leadership as he avoided telling a group of business leaders whether work visas should be expanded or restricted from current levels.
The candidates for U.S. Senate appeared Monday afternoon at a forum sponsored by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation. Ed Sealover of the Denver Business Journal asked the questions.
The candidates did not appear on the same stage — in fact, they were separated by a half hour of presentations on ballot measures — so there was not the back-and-forth that characterized their debate last week.
Bennet called Washington dysfunctional but touted his record of partnering with Republicans on legislation dealing with issues ranging from immigration to Food and Drug Administration approval processes.
“I think my office has been more successful than virtually any office in the Senate in navigating the dysfunction and actually putting results on the board for Colorado and the country,” he said. “… We have to change these democratic institutions we have, including the Senate, and make them more responsive to the American people.”
Glenn, whose position in the primary was that Republicans in Congress are too quick to compromise and who said he would not reach across the aisle, told the Chamber audience that he wanted to run to serve as a healer to a divided country.
“Service has always been near and dear to my heart, and I can tell you as I’m watching what’s happening in our country, I’m concerned about the tone that’s there,” he said. “I feel like I could raise my hand and serve and heal and bring us together.”
Calling it “either the best or worst reality show” and “the worst episode of South Park,” Glenn twice lampooned the presidential race without naming names or getting into specifics. Glenn told a private meeting of business leaders last week that he is voting for but not endorsing Donald Trump despite calling him “disqualified” to be president.
Immigration sparked some of the most intense responses of the forum.
Bennet called Trump’s rhetoric on immigration “completely at war with who we are as Americans.”
Bennet referred to the fear that immigrants have of being deported but also to the reliance of businesses in many industries on immigrant labor as a reason to pass immigration reform.
“I was in Olathe in August and just one example of a zillion examples: The farmers there were saying, ‘We’ve got weeds in our beets, we can’t get them picked. We’ve got weeds in our onions, we can’t get them picked,'” Bennet said. “We have dairies all over Colorado … people at risk of losing their family businesses because of our inability to deal with this.”
Bennet expressed visible frustration that the immigration bill he worked on, which passed the Senate by a large margin, hasn’t received a vote in the House, which is controlled by more conservative Republicans.
“I’ve seen the leadership we need, and it was the leadership provided by John McCain, Jeff Flake, Marco Rubio and Lindsay Graham, the four Republicans who sat in that room negotiating that bill with me and the three other Democrats, knowing exactly what the base of their party would say about them being there,” Bennet said.
“That is the standard we need to deal with our fiscal problems, to deal with energy, to deal with education and certainly to deal with immigration,” he continued. “… That is leadership, and if we had that level of leadership throughout the Congress, there is no end to what we could accomplish.”
The audience had been asked to remain silent, but applause broke out when Bennet predicted that the next Congress will pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill that looks very similar to the last one.
In contrast, Glenn called for securing the border, enforcing “all” immigration laws and putting more resources into processing legal immigrants. Only then can we have a discussion about broader solutions. That must happen through a legislative process, and not through an executive order, a reference to President Barack Obama’s order to make certain immigrants a very low priority for deportation.
In response to a question about which immigration laws aren’t being enforced, Glenn made an apparent reference to a story widely reported in right-wing media, that Border Patrol agents are being told not to do their jobs.
“When you’re talking about whether people have access to the country and whether or not they’re going to be looked over, you have those areas where we have heard concerns,” he said. “With regard to the border, you have enforcement agents being told they can’t properly enforce and do certain things. We need to examine whether or not that is true. That’s what we’re hearing, and because we’re hearing that, it’s worth investigating. We need to make sure each and every law is being enforced because it’s there for a reason.”
Sealover then asked Glenn about his position on work visas, whether for high-tech workers or seasonal agricultural visas. In a three-minute web version of a recent ad, Glenn argues that immigration makes it harder for lower-skill American workers to get jobs and that it’s not racist to oppose more immigration on those grounds.
“When did wanting to feed your family become racist?” Glenn asks in the ad.
“In general do you feel like we’re doing a good job in terms of the visa program?” Sealover asked. “Are we letting too many people in for seasonal work? You’ve been concerned about immigration and the workforce before.”
“You made a critical statement. ‘Do you feel?'” Glenn said. “Policy shouldn’t be based on feel. That’s the problem. We need to have verifiable data. Is that policy working? There are too many laws and policies based on feelings. … That’s why it’s so important to bring people together. That’s where leadership comes in.”
Glenn returned to the theme of leadership throughout the forum.
While Bennet discussed legislation he had sponsored or would sponsor, legislation that had passed or that might yet pass if Congress ever stops being so obstructionist, Glenn frequently responded to policy questions by saying he would bring together people from a variety of perspectives and find solutions “from the bottom up, not the top down.”
On workforce development, Bennet said that far more jobs have been lost to automation and technological advances than to overseas trade. The country needs to be training workers for the good-paying jobs of tomorrow, and he proposed providing the same types of financial assistance for someone to learn welding or coding as we currently provide for those going to four-year colleges.
Glenn said he didn’t want to commit to any specific proposals until he heard from the people.
“I love this question because it’s where my passion is,” he said. “People ask me what role a senator has, and it’s being a leader. I alluded to this earlier and what I would do is have conversations. Let’s make sure we pull together our policy makers, pull together our law enforcement, pull together community leaders.”
Bennet supports a higher minimum wage. Glenn does not.
The federal minimum wage hasn’t been increased since 2009, when a multi-year phase-in brought it to $7.25. The previous minimum wage of $5.15 an hour was in place for 10 years. Colorado voters will get a chance to decide this November if the state minimum wage should be increased to $12 an hour over several years. Under pressure from Bernie Sanders, labor unions and others, the Democratic Party platform calls for $15 an hour as the minimum wage.
“I strongly believe that going to $12 over time is a reasonable thing to do,” Bennet said, noting that puts him on the opposite side from many in the room. “I do support raising it at the federal level. We have to have a discussion of how much and how fast.”
Bennet said the entire economy benefits from higher wages.
“When 80 percent of our economy is consumer driven, consumption driven, and you’ve got people making barely enough to just put food on the table, that’s a real problem for our economy,” he said. “We need some number that is more fair than the one we have.”
Glenn said small business owners are “heroes” who don’t have extra money that can be spent on “feel-good” policies like increasing the minimum wage. They’ll pass those costs on or simply hire less.
“What is going to happen if you artificially raise the minimum wage? They’re going to get cut out of the market,” he said of younger, entry-level workers. “I know too many employers that are just barely getting by. If you artificially increase their overhead, they’re going to have to evaluate certain things. They’re either going to have to pass it on to the consumer, which if they could, I’m sure they’d be doing that already. Or two, they’re going to have to say, ‘I’m looking at my salary line. I’m going to have to cut people. I’m not going to hire as many people.’ That’s going to really hurt that underserved community, that black and brown population that is already unemployed or underemployed.”