As President Joe Biden takes office Wednesday, the new administration and a new party in power will usher in immediate changes, some of which will have a disproportionate impact on Colorado.
Democrats in control of both the House and Senate, and Vice President Kamala Harris to serve as a tie-breaker in the upper chamber, give Biden’s legislative agenda — including a $1.9 trillion emergency coronavirus relief package — a greater chance of making it through. Although, with a 50-50 split in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans, Biden will still sometimes need Republican support.
It also gives Colorado Democrats a greater platform, especially as U.S. House Representatives Diana DeGette and Joe Neguse are expected to present the party’s argument for impeaching former President Donald Trump during the upcoming Senate impeachment trial.
From policies to curb the devastating impact of wildfires to decisions about where agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Space Command call home, we highlight some of Biden’s early proposals, campaign promises and appointments that will impact Colorado.
Coronavirus pandemic response
The Biden Administration has already released plans for a $1.9 trillion emergency relief package that Biden says will “finish the job” by ramping up coronavirus testing and vaccination, and provide economic relief to families and businesses hit hard by pandemic closures.
That comes as Colorado and other states have scrambled to rework vaccination plans after learning the Trump Administration already spent most of a national vaccine reserve it said was available.
During a briefing Tuesday, Gov Jared. Polis said he’s told members of Biden’s transition team that Colorado needs more vaccine doses and better notification about how much vaccine the state can expect.
“We need more vaccine. We need more vaccine. We need more vaccine,” Polis said. “A lot of the problems and frustrations that we hear would be gone if the state received three or four times the amount of vaccine.”
Biden’s proposal calls for $20 billion toward a strategy to speed up vaccinations, including the creation of 100 mass vaccination sites run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and sending mobile units to vaccinate people in rural and underserved areas. It also sets aside $50 billion for expanded coronavirus testing.
Biden is also expected to invoke the Defense Production Act to ramp up vaccine production.
The “American Rescue Plan” also proposes:
- Another $1,400 stimulus check, with proposed eligibility for adult dependents and households with mixed immigration status
- Extending federal unemployment insurance. Unemployment programs under existing relief bills will end in March. Biden’s plan would increase extra weekly benefits to $400 and extend those programs through September. It would also include people who have already exhausted benefits
- $30 billion in rental assistance, plus another $5 billion in emergency assistance for housing the homeless. The plan also would extend eviction moratoriums to Sept. 30
- $15 billion in loans to small businesses, plus leveraging $35 billion in government funds to create a $175 million small business loan program
- $130 billion in aid for schools and $350 billion in assistance for local, state and territorial governments
- A $25 billion fund to help child care providers plus $15 billion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant program
- Increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, from the current $7.25, and end the tipped minimum wage for people with disabilities
- Reinstate paid sick and family leave benefits that expired in December
Read more: Vox has a breakdown of the proposal.
The additional funding would be on top of nearly $4 trillion that Congress has already devoted to addressing the pandemic, including the $900 billion measure that Trump signed in December.
The plan, of course, is just a proposal that could still change and needs the approval of Congress. Republicans have pushed back against the plan and blasted the scale of spending.
“I think there’s a good chance it will make it through in some form,” said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat. “I don’t know exactly what form that will be.”
Bennet said he doesn’t see anything he doesn’t like in the legislation so far, but admitted that he hasn’t gone through all the details yet. He is excited about a proposed increase in the Child Tax Credit, because the policy mimics the American Family Act he’s been working to pass for years.
“If we pass the American Family Act, every single minute I’ve spent with Ted Cruz will have been worth it,” Bennet said of the Republican senator from Texas.
The $1.9 trillion plan will be followed by a broader relief plan that Biden will unveil in February, when he meets with Congress for the first time.
Key Cabinet Appointments
There are few Colorado ties to Biden’s incoming administration, which breaks from the past two presidents who have called on Coloradans to serve in top positions in their cabinets. Think Interior Secretaries Ken Salazar, a Democrat appointed by Barack Obama, and Republican David Bernhardt, who served under Trump.
But that doesn’t mean Biden appointees won’t have big and immediate impacts on Colorado.
Deb Haaland, a former U.S. representative from New Mexico, has been tapped to serve as Biden’s interior secretary, a job in which she will oversee the Bureau of Land Management and the millions of acres of land it manages in Colorado. Whomever Haaland and Biden pick to lead the BLM will be based in Grand Junction, as long as the agency remains headquartered there.
MORE: Tribal leaders respond to Haaland’s appointment – High Country News
If confirmed, Tom Vilsack, Biden’s secretary of agriculture, will oversee the U.S. Forest Service, whose lands are one of Colorado’s most important attractions.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III will be nominated to serve as secretary of defense, meaning he will have an outsized influence over the military installations in Colorado Springs and Aurora.
Other key cabinet nominees include: Michael Regan, who has been tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; Alejandro N. Mayorkas, Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Homeland Security and thus U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Pete Buttigieg, who has been nominated to serve as transportation secretary.
Democrats take Center Stage
With Democrats steering the White House and both houses of Congress, Biden gets an incremental boost to his chances of effecting real policy change.
That means the proposals pushed by Colorado’s Democrats in recent years — on issues like health care, the environment, gun control, public lands and the economy — actually have a shot of passing.
“I think the American people are demanding a much more progressive agenda than they’ve demanded in my lifetime,” Bennet said.
Bennet says passing bills won’t be a cakewalk, however, since the Senate is evenly split. Harris, who as Vice President oversees the Senate, can cast a tie-breaking vote.
Even with the potential narrow-majority hurdles, Democrats in the state legislature are already starting to rethink their policy agenda to take into account the party’s potential advances in Congress. If federal lawmakers, for instance, can pass a public health insurance option bill, there may not be a reason for Colorado to do the same on the state level.
“There’s no doubt that we’re watching what the feds are doing,” said Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat.
The record-breaking wildfires that leveled large swaths of the Western U.S. and choked regions in smoke were fueled by rising temperatures and climate change, a trend Biden acknowledged throughout his campaign.
Biden’s clean energy plan includes mention of strategies to thin and manage forests sustainably, but includes few other details.
MORE: Experts on what Biden could do to curtail devastating wildfires – Washington Post
In addition to immediately rejoining the Paris climate accord, Biden has an ambitious $2 trillion plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That includes opening up talks with the auto industry to improve the fuel efficiency of cars; expediting federal permits for offshore wind projects and stopping the expansion of drilling on public land.
Still, as with all government plans, Biden must find a way to fund that plan, and get buy-in from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
MORE: Biden’s climate plan gets a boost from a Democrat-led Senate – Wall Street Journal
This news first appeared in The Unaffiliated. Subscribe here to get the twice-weekly political newsletter from The Colorado Sun.
Beyond progressive appointments, environmentalists also want Biden to stick to his campaign promise of focusing on how climate change has disproportionately impacted low-income people and communities of color.
Sen. John Hickenlooper is also hopeful that Congress will make the environment a priority when debating COVID-19 relief and infrastructure.
“We can really look at climate change and say, ‘All right, if we are going to have an infrastructure package, we’ll make sure that those investments in our infrastructure — whether it’s broadband or roads or bridges or light rail — that those are going to be able to make our economy greener and use less energy,’” Hickenlooper said.
The Trump White House vowed to veto the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Act, a massive Democratic public lands bill, eliminating any chance of its passage over the past four years. That’s not to mention the Republican blockade on advancing the legislation in the Senate.
But now, Democratic members of Colorado’s congressional delegation are confident the measure will pass — and quickly.
“My hope is that we can pass it in the first quarter,” Bennet said. “That’s what I’d like to do.”
One holdup could be that the legislation will be tacked onto a larger public lands bill, and Bennet’s not sure when that will come. At the latest, he says, the CORE Act will pass out of the Senate by the end of 2021.
Another big question is whether Biden’s White House will uphold the Trump administration’s decision to relocate the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to Colorado.
“I have not yet had discussions with (the Biden transition team) about it,” Bennet said. “I think the position that I’ve always had is we are happy to have it if it’s a serious commitment to move it in a way that BLM can play its role and provides the function that it provides.”
Bennet thinks the Trump administration’s relocation didn’t accomplish that goal.
“I think it’s possible that the Biden administration may decide just to leave it in Washington, D.C.,” Bennet said.
Hickenlooper supported the relocation when he was governor, but has since raised concerns about whether it was really the best thing for the agency.
Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Rifle, whose district includes Grand Junction, is battling to keep the BLM headquarters in the Western Slope city. “The move is already saving millions of dollars each year & nearly 180 jobs have moved out West closer to the people & the land they manage,” she said on Twitter.
The Trump administration, in its final days, decided to move the U.S. Space Command headquarters to Alabama from its temporary home in Colorado Springs, outraging both Republicans and Democrats.
Now, Bennet and Hickenlooper feel they can persuade the Biden administration to reconsider.
“This was Donald Trump punishing Colorado for not voting for Donald Trump,” Bennet said, explaining that he’s already asked Biden’s transition team to do “everything they can to freeze that decision and investigate the way that it was made.”
Bennet said he and Hickenlooper have written a letter demanding a second look at the decision. U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican, has done the same.
John Henderson, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations, environment and energy, told Politico that Huntsville, Alabama, was chosen over Colorado Springs because it “objectively” rated better.
“We took a hard look at Colorado to make sure this was the right decision,” Henderson told the news outlet.
Biden is expected to unveil new legislation Wednesday that includes an eight-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status, including an estimated 162,000 people living and working in Colorado.
It’s a swift departure from Trump, who campaigned on a zero-tolerance policy aimed at stopping illegal immigration and ramping up deportations. His administration has also been heavily criticized for a now-rescinded policy that allowed parents and children to be separated at the border.
More: Colorado immigration advocates are cautiously optimistic about Biden – Westword
Although the Biden Administration had not released or confirmed details of the bill prior to Inauguration Day, people briefed on the proposed legislation said it includes a faster track for young people in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and people with temporary protected status.
Biden has also pledged to reverse a number of Trump’s executive actions and issue a moratorium on deportations during his first 100 days in office.
It’s not clear yet how quickly the Administration will act on these promises. Biden told advocates on a call last week that Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate may delay consideration of the bill, said Domingo Garcia, former president of the League of Latin American Citizens.
Colorado Republicans, meanwhile, are warning of overreach. U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, voiced concerns about Biden’s immigration policies, saying they will have “consequences.”
“Biden campaigned on being bipartisan but is planning to spend his first week signing a flurry of executive orders to bypass Congress,” Boebert said on Twitter. “From immigration to the Paris Climate Accord, he plans to sign away our sovereignty with record speed. Overreaching mandates aren’t the answer.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.