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John Hickenlooper spoke at a distanced campaign rally at Denver's East High School on Oct. 8, 2020. He won his race for the U.S. Senate in November. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper is finding himself in a familiar role in Washington.

The Democrat is one of 16 senators in an evenly split bipartisan coalition working with President Joe Biden’s team to craft the next COVID-19 relief bill. 

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The cohort met for the first time Sunday with the new administration, and Hickenlooper said both parties found agreement on prioritizing vaccine distribution and economic support for those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The role is a significant one for Hickenlooper, a first-time lawmaker who started his job less than a month ago — but not surprising. The former two-term governor built his reputation on finding middle ground between polarized sides, whether it was the oil and gas industry and environmental organizations or members of both parties in the state legislature. He also campaigned ahead of the 2020 election with a focus on providing more pandemic assistance.

In an interview Monday, Hickenlooper said his track record preceded him: “If you’ve been a governor or congressman, they know who you are and what things you’ve done.”

The coalition — dubbed the “Sweet 16” — is the successor to the small bipartisan team of senators that broke a stalemate to put together the $908 billion coronavirus relief package in December 2020. 

One of Hickenlooper’s first priorities upon taking office was meeting colleagues, and when the bipartisan group added two more members from each party earlier this month he received his party’s nod, along with Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly.

Hickenlooper said he watched the first group’s work and wanted to get involved. The senators “stepped in where there was a logjam and they found a way to loosen the logs up, and maybe not get what either side really wanted, but it seemed there was compromise on both sides, and it seemed I could be useful in that sort of a group,” Hickenlooper said.

In terms of the negotiations on the new bill, Hickenlooper said his priorities include:

  • State and local financial aid. He said the prior discussions distributed the money to states in a way that was “unfairly biased against Colorado” and he plans to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
  • Small business assistance. “Colorado has a significant hospitality industry and small business community that has been severely hit — I think more severely hit — by COVID-19. … I’m fighting on behalf of small businesses, especially restaurants and nail salons,” he said.
  • Reopening schools. He wants to make sure money aimed at the education system is focused on providing mental health support, as well as providing protective equipment, testing and vaccines to schools.

The task ahead of Hickenlooper and his colleagues is becoming more difficult by the day as Republicans build opposition to big spending in a far-reaching package that Biden has proposed. But as to his role, Hickenlooper said: “I am going to do everything I can to make sure Colorado is represented fairly.”

John Frank

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