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U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before the groundbreaking on a new research lab at NREL in Golden on Aug. 12, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

AURORA — In the first week after the U.S. Senate departed for a weeks-long recess, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner made a series of stops in Aurora to discuss mental health care.

The Yuma Republican highlighted his legislation to create the 988 national suicide hotline and a bill he co-sponsored with U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris — the Democratic nominee for vice president — to address a shortage of mental health workers.

All the while, a stalemate in Washington hung over his head like an anvil: The gridlocked negotiations for another stimulus package to fill gaps in the coronavirus response, address the high unemployment rate, provide money for the U.S. election and start the school year.

Gardner acknowledged the unfinished work but offered few specifics about what he sees as a path forward. “We have to do more,” he said in an interview after the event at the National Mental Health Innovation Center, “and more every minute.”

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For Gardner, the political stakes for a stimulus deal are significant and the pressure is mounting. The first-term lawmaker faces reelection challenge in 12 weeks and he’s pinned his campaign in large part on his response to the pandemic and his ability to deliver relief to Colorado in his reelection bid. 

In May, days after the Democratic-led U.S. House approved another aid package, Gardner demanded that the Republican majority in the U.S. Senate take action before recessing for the Memorial Day break. At the time, he called the break “unfathomable,” but three months later, the two parties remain far apart with no agreement in sight.

Democratic rival John Hickenlooper is using the inaction to bludgeon Gardner, saying the delays are “reckless.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner speaks before the groundbreaking on a new research lab at NREL in Golden on Aug. 12, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“You got to be kidding me,” Hickenlooper exclaimed in a virtual event Friday. Instead of continuing negotiations, he added, “the Senate has packed up their bags and left to go campaign.”

Hickenlooper supports the $3 trillion Democratic legislation — known as the Heroes Act —  that calls for more money to address the pandemic and economic fallout, the restoration of the $600 additional payments to those who lost jobs and $3.6 billion to help provide more resources for the Nov. 3 election. 

In addition, the former governor focused on the need for more personal protective equipment for medical workers, more rapid testing, and relief for renters and homeowners. He did not offer specifics on what policies he wants to see included in the legislation and he was not available for an interview. His campaign has not held a widely advertised event since early March; advisers say they are limiting events because of the coronavirus.

MORE: Colorado doesn’t appear to be a presidential swing state in 2020. That could spell big trouble for Cory Gardner.

In recent public events, Gardner made clear he supports another round of federal stimulus and deflected Democratic criticisms pointing to ongoing efforts he supports to provide relief despite the legislative impasse. The U.S. Senate recessed Thursday and is not expected to return until September; the U.S. House will return later this week to address concerns about the U.S. Postal Service.

In an interview after his mental health events Monday, the senator touted that Colorado’s application for $300 in extended unemployment benefits received approval from the Trump administration. “That’s going to start as soon as the state can go,” he said.

When it comes to money for elections, Gardner downplayed Democratic demands for a larger cash infusion. He said existing election assistance money remains unspent and a loan is available for the Postal Service.

“There is money that is leftover,” he said, referring to federal dollars for elections. “They haven’t used it all, so let’s use it and if they need more let’s get more. I don’t think there’s going to be a shortage-of-money problem to protect our elections, that’s not the issue.”

MORE: Cory Gardner firmly rejects Trump’s suggestion that election should be delayed

Likewise, he said he supports providing more money to schools “for as many students safely as possible to reenter” classrooms. “Let’s get that done as soon as possible,” he added.

In terms of the legislation, Gardner has outlined other parameters. He said it needs to be bipartisan, extend the popular Paycheck Protection Program for businesses, provide more personal protective equipment and testing and include more aid for state and local governments.

But he’s declined to address who is to blame for the stalled negotiations and instead said that everyone just needs to do better. “I’m not going to point fingers,” he said in an interview last week. “There’s too many people who want to point fingers, and maybe that’s the fault of everyone.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, speaks to reporters at a news conference Aug. 17, 2020, on mail-in voting. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said the blame belongs to Republican leader Mitch McConnell for not acting sooner. Bennet joined other Democratic leaders at an event Monday in Denver to tout the state’s model for all-mail voting and support the Postal Service.

“We have got to pass another bill,” Bennet said. “My view is we should all be back there today negotiating that bill, and I’m sorry that we’re not.”

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.