WASHINGTON — Colorado’s eight U.S. House members and two U.S. senators spend most of their time in Washington working more than 1,600 miles away from the nearly 6 million people they represent.
So what are they up to?
The Colorado Sun traveled to the nation’s capital from Sept. 11-15 to help Coloradans understand how the delegation operates on a day-to-day basis with one another, with their colleagues from other states and with the public. The Sun talked with the state’s representatives and senators, followed them to events and committee meetings, and watched proceedings on the House and Senate floors.
It turned out to be a busy week, with Congress facing a Sept. 30 deadline to pass spending bills to keep the government open, Republicans launching an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden and Colorado’s most bombastic congressional representative embroiled in another controversy.
Here’s what we learned:
5 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11: Hickenlooper meets with farmers
About 30 people are sitting in a conference room across from Sen. John Hickenlooper’s office in the historic Russell Office Building near the Capitol. They’re members of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, an organization representing farmers in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat, walks in wearing an orange and brown hat bearing the group’s “FU” logo. He’s also wearing sneakers with a Colorado “C” logo on them.
Everything you need to know about the two Senators and eight Representatives Colorado voters send to Washington.
“I’m loving Washington,” Hickenlooper said at the end of a 10-minute speech in which he talked about climate change, federal infrastructure spending and the congressional Colorado River caucus he organized early this year. “It’s fascinating. It’s important work. It’s relevant. I feel kind of lucky to be here, as somebody who used to badmouth the Senate.”
The farmers laugh at that line, then question Hickenlooper about the prospects of a federal law that would give farmers the right to repair farm machinery on their own, similar to the bill Colorado’s legislature passed earlier this year, instead of relying on manufacturers. They also ask about water, climate change and apprenticeship programs for agriculture workers. He reassures them he’s on their side.
“There are a lot of Democrats that are ready to reach out to rural America and say, ‘We had good intentions, but we have not served,’” Hickenlooper said. “Some of the tax policies favor the giant agribusinesses and they’re really not protecting the small farmers who are the backbone of this country.”
At about 5:30 p.m., an alarm goes off, signaling a Senate floor vote. Hickenlooper takes a photo with the group, then heads off to the chamber through a tunnel connecting the Russell Office Building to the Capitol. The Colorado-logo shoes, a gift from Gov. Jared Polis, who has a similar pair, make a high-pitched squeaking noise.
Hickenlooper arrives outside the Senate floor at about 6 p.m. to cast a “cloture” vote on whether to move forward with a formal vote on confirming a presidential nominee — Tanya J. Bradsher to be deputy secretary of veterans affairs.
“I’ll be out here in two seconds,” he said, putting on a tie handed to him by an aide, then heading to the floor. He’s right. He quickly returns, takes off the tie and lets a reporter snap photos of his shoes before leaving the Capitol.
The cloture vote takes about an hour, with senators wandering in and out of the chamber, before it’s approved. When the formal vote on Bradsher’s nomination happens Tuesday night, it passes 49-44. It’s the first of six votes in the Senate and nine votes in the House taken during the week.
11:20 Tuesday, Sept. 12: Biden impeachment
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy emerges from his office to hold a news conference.
The California Republican, speaking in an alcove packed with reporters, offers a statement about starting an impeachment inquiry into Joe Biden focused on the president’s possible involvement in his son Hunter’s business dealings, which three committees in the GOP-controlled House are already investigating.
The announcement is widely seen as a move to appease far-right Republicans who are threatening a government shutdown if they don’t get their way on spending bills.
McCarthy’s remarks last less than three minutes before he turns and walks back into his office, ignoring the questions being shouted at him.
The three Republicans in Colorado’s congressional delegation aren’t at the news conference, but as the week goes on they all weigh in as the inquiry dominates the Washington conversation.
3 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12: House Freedom Caucus makes demands
U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Garfield County, is attending a House Freedom Caucus news conference outside the Capitol at a spot known as the House Triangle.
The group of hard-line conservatives who fought McCarthy’s bid to become speaker in January is reiterating demands it made in August that any deal on government spending revert to 2019 levels, increase dollars for border security and stop U.S. aid to Ukraine. The stakes are high. If the demands aren’t met and a spending bill doesn’t pass, the federal government will shut down.
“No one here (is) interested in a pause in government funding,” said U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican who is chair of the caucus. “What we’re interested in is taking the Biden boot off the neck of the American people.”
Boebert, who is communications chair of the caucus, doesn’t speak at the event, but she frequently nods her head in approval or interjects with a “yeah!” in support of points being made. About halfway through the news conference, she leaves, pursued by a group of reporters as she walks toward the Longworth Office Building, one of three buildings where House members have their offices.
There’s already plenty of evidence against Biden, she said, fielding a question about the Biden impeachment inquiry. “I’m ready for a straight up and down vote on the floor: yes or no, impeach Joe Biden,” she said. “My vote is ‘yes.’”
A Colorado Sun reporter asks Boebert if impeachment is the most important issue to her constituents in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
“Spending is the most important issue right now,” she replied. “Everywhere that I go people are having a hard time buying groceries, affording gas, getting to work, paying for their child care, affording the homes that they live in — or the homes that they would like to live in. We have got to get the spending under control in Washington, D.C.”
Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, who is also part of the House Freedom Caucus, did not participate in the news conference. The third Republican in Colorado’s delegation, Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs, was briefly a member of the caucus when it first formed in 2015 but left the next year.
6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 12: Michael Bennet talks tech at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove
A crowd of mostly millennials is grabbing drinks and food at Hawk ‘n’ Dove tavern a few blocks from the Capitol when Colorado’s senior U.S. senator, Democrat Michael Bennet, takes the stage to talk about his initiatives aimed at protecting young people from the harms of technology. It’s sponsored by Axios, a national media organization
Bennet is proposing a new, independent government agency, similar to the Federal Communications Commission or Food and Drug Administration, to oversee big tech companies. He said he’s especially worried about the impact social media platforms have on teens’ mental health.
“I spent Friday in Denver with 15 psychologists who take care of kids,” Bennet said. “I was expecting them to talk about their patients. They couldn’t even get past (talking about) their own kids.”
Bennet acknowledged he isn’t getting a lot of support for his idea, but he is hoping to make progress.
Earlier in the day, Bennet talked with The Sun about his broader congressional priorities.
“I think keeping the government open would be a good start,” he joked.
He expressed skepticism about whether the House could come to an agreement.
“We’re in a situation where McCarthy is so scared of his flank that he’s going to do everything he can to try to mitigate, ameliorate their irritation and anger with him,” Bennet said. “I’m not sure it’s gonna work.”
10:05 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 12: A Republican showdown
Dozens of reporters line a hallway in the lower level of the Capitol, waiting for Republicans to emerge from a closed-door meeting about the budget impasse. The House is scheduled to take up a defense spending bill later in the day, but that vote appears in jeopardy because of the Freedom Caucus’ demands.
The Sun catches up with Boebert as she leaves the meeting to ask her position on the defense-spending measure.
“I won’t tell the whip team,” she said, walking away, “I’m not going to tell you, girlfriend.”
Lamborn is more congenial when he exits the gathering a few minutes later, answering questions as he walks to a committee hearing. He said he agrees with including something about immigration into an extension of continued government spending, also known as a continuing resolution, in order to bargain with the Democratically held Senate. But he also offered words of caution.
“If there’s a government shutdown, no one wins,” said Lamborn, who is Colorado’s second longest-serving member of the House. “There’s some here that haven’t seen that, and I hope we don’t have to experience it once again for them to learn that hard lesson.”
Lamborn was first elected in 2006 and has repeatedly fended off primary challengers since. He brings a wait-and-see approach to some issues as a result of his congressional longevity.
“I see some things that concern me about the Biden family,” he said about House Republicans’ impeachment inquiry. “I think that it’s worthy of continued investigation, because these concerns are very troubling.”
Buck is the lone Republican member of Colorado’s delegation who flat-out thinks the inquiry is a bad idea. He thinks there isn’t enough evidence against Biden.
“Republicans in the House who are itching for an impeachment are relying on an imagined history,” Buck wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece. “Trump’s impeachment in 2019 was a disgrace to the Constitution and a disservice to Americans. The GOP’s reprise in 2023 is no better.”
2 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13: Buck and Lamborn talk spending
Buck, a former Weld County district attorney, exits the House floor after voting and stops to talk with several reporters. Most of them ask about impeachment, and Buck reiterates his opposition to McCarthy’s decision to launch an inquiry into Biden.
“I thought that Speaker McCarthy was wrong,” Buck said. “I haven’t seen evidence linking Hunter Biden’s activities to Joe Biden.”
Buck’s office declined to set up a meeting with The Sun, but the congressman agreed to talk in the hallway for a bit. He said his top concern has always been government spending. He rarely votes in favor of spending bills on the floor.
“It affects almost every other issue out there,” Buck said. “The ability for us to keep Social Security solvent is a spending issue. The ability for us to keep Medicare solvent is a spending issue. The ability for us to defend our country 30 years from now is a spending issue.”
His solution to the spending issue? “I think every committee should have a subcommittee that deals with spending, and addresses the waste in these agencies and tries to cut the waste,” he said.
Despite his opposition to new spending, Buck said he favors continuing support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, unlike Boebert. “If Russia expands further, westward, we’re going to have a world war and we’re going to be spending a whole lot more money,” he said.
While he said Ukrainian aid needs to continue, Lamborn, in an interview with The Sun, lamented the broader national political divisions that appear to be steering Congress toward a government shutdown.
“The country is more polarized,” he said. “And as a result, Congress is more polarized than things used to be. That’s one change. Secondly, we spend a lot more money a lot more freely than we used to. And we have to get on top of that. That’s not sustainable.”
3:45 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 13: Boebert cancels on The Sun
Boebert’s staff scheduled a meeting with a Sun reporter for Wednesday afternoon, but canceled early in the day.
The night before, news broke about how the congresswoman and a male companion had been tossed from a performance of the musical “Beetlejuice” in Denver a few days before. The venue said Boebert was vaping and being generally disruptive.
Surveillance cameras also recorded Boebert’s date grabbing her breasts.
The Sun did visit Boebert’s office Monday without the congresswoman, during which a staffer shows a reporter around. There is a large gold key to the White House from the era of former President Donald Trump on Boebert’s desk. Several letters from Trump adorn the walls. A glass replica of a rifle sits elevated over four drink glasses. An “Impeach Joe Biden” sticker is on the mini-fridge.
Perhaps most notable about the office was an area set aside for TV live shots, with professional lighting, a digital camera and a TV screen that can project a background when Boebert is on air.
10:30 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 14: A mom in the House
Davis Silverii, 3, is opening a new toy in his mom’s office when a reporter walks in. Something has spilled in the backpack carrying Davis’ belongings and his mom, Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, grabs paper towels to clean it up.
“We gotta just throw it in the laundry when I get home tonight,” she said as her husband, Democratic strategist Ian Silverii, leaves to record a podcast outside the Capitol.
Pettersen, whose 7th Congressional District spans across Jefferson County into Colorado’s central mountains, talks about the issues that are important to her, many of which center on affordability, especially when it comes to housing.
“It’s a crisis across the U.S., but especially in the 7th Congressional District,” she said. “We have seniors who can’t move, and they’re holding on to their houses, because there’s nowhere for them to go. We have young families who are unable to start building their lives. We have people who have grown up in communities who are being pushed out.”
Davis interrupts his mom periodically until he’s eventually offered treats and screen time in exchange for agreeing to leave the room for a bit. Pettersen is one of only two of the 128 women in the House who has a young child.
“I think I’m going to start the parents caucus,” she said. “It can be difficult to navigate.”
11 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 14: Caraveo focuses on ag and environment
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm is addressing the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and Rep. Yadira Caraveo, D-Thornton, is ready with a question.
Caraveo, a member of the committee, tells the panel and Granholm about the rapid temperature drop in December that caused Suncor Energy to shut down its Commerce City refinery for three months, resulting in higher gas prices and hazardous chemical releases.
“The Suncor shutdown really demonstrated to Coloradans how climate change can have an impact both on their pocketbooks and their physical health,” Caraveo said before asking Granholm about research to help stem similar shutdowns and chemical releases.
Caraveo also serves on the Agriculture Committee, where she has a hand in helping write the farm bill, a five-year spending measure that includes farm subsidies and food benefits for low-income families through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP.
“The farmers that I’m talking to, they don’t want SNAP to be cut — that’s where their food is going,” she said. “And a huge number of their neighbors are utilizing that program.”
12:40 .m. Thursday, Sept. 14: Neguse on the floor
A half-dozen Republicans and twice as many Democrats are on the House floor to debate a procedural motion to a bill that will be considered later in the day. The lawmakers are seated behind the speaker’s dias on their side of the House so it appears on television that there might be more people there. Nearly all are on their phones, while about 40 members of the public are watching from the gallery, many wearing shorts and T-shirts.
At 1:10 p.m., Rep. Joe Neguse, D-Lafayette, takes the floor to chastise Republicans about putting off voting on spending bills and instead moving forward with a bill to prohibit states from banning gas-powered cars.
“Sixteen days,” Neguse begins. “Sixteen days. That’s how much time we have left until the government runs out of funding.”
Shortly after he finishes his five-minute speech, Neguse leaves the floor.
Neguse, who chairs the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, has a personal interest in preventing a shutdown. The 2021 infrastructure law included pay raises for wildland firefighters and it will expire at the end of the month if they aren’t renewed.
“If we don’t get that done, every wildland firefighter in the country, the vast majority of them, will experience a 50% pay cut,” he told The Sun. “Already, it’s having an impact in terms of workforce retention.”
Neguse is the most prolific member of the delegation in terms of bill introduction this year at 65, of which 49% have Republican cosponsors. But introducing bills is perhaps the easiest step in Congress. Getting them passed is a rarity.
For instance, nearly 18,000 measures were introduced in the last two-year congressional session and only 7% of those became law. Most bills don’t even make it through committee.
3 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 14: Crow seeks bipartisanship
Rep. Jason Crow is another lawmaker who says he is focused on bipartisanship.
Sitting in his office before the final House votes of the week, the Democrat from Centennial holds up two cards. One is a list of Republicans he wants to ask to cosponsor one of his bills. The other is a description of the bill and why it deserves support.
“I’m actually pitching this resolution on Afghanistan right now,” he said. “It’s actually amazing how much business gets done on the House floor.”
It’s on the floor, Crow said, where lawmakers most often interact with each other.
Like others in the delegation, Crow is concerned about the budget stalemate.
“I’m concerned with the debt and the deficit,” he said. “It’s unsustainable. But shutting the government down has never and will never solve it. It actually wastes tens of billions of dollars. We might as well just pile that money up and set it on fire.”
9 a.m. Friday, Sept. 15: They got out of town, except for DeGette
Business on the House and Senate floors ended Thursday afternoon, so on a Friday morning, after four days of people bustling through the Capitol in a constant buzz, the building is silent.
No one is in the House press gallery. There is, however, a line of staffers getting coffee at the Dunkin’ in the Longworth Building basement.
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, is still in town. She sits on a sofa under framed photos and documents from her career, including presiding over the House on the 2019 Trump impeachment vote.
Like Lamborn and Bennet, she’s seen plenty of turbulent congressional times and past government shutdowns.
“It is dysfunctional,” DeGette said of Congress right now. “But what I (tell) people in Colorado is they have the power to take this back. People have to elect representatives who reflect their values.”
Last week, Boebert and Lamborn voted to bring the defense measure to the floor twice. All six Democrats and Buck voted against it on Tuesday. But Buck switched his vote on Thursday. The bill still failed in the GOP-controlled House.
Thus, Congress remains deadlocked over spending bills as the final day of the fiscal year arrives on Saturday.