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Did Bennet Vote "No" With an Eye on 2016?

Did Bennet Vote "No" With an Eye on 2016?

By Erin McPike - January 3, 2013

Among the surprising “no” votes on the eleventh-hour bill to avert the fiscal cliff was one cast by an ambitious young senator -- who is also a Democrat.

Michael Bennet, the junior senator from Colorado and newly minted chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, was one of just three members of his party in the upper chamber who bucked the president in rejecting the bill. A number of sources who are either close to the senator or have intently followed his career insist that his decision, though eyebrow-raising, was apolitical.

What’s more, his reason for voting against the measure is different from those offered by two of his senior Democratic colleagues, Delaware’s Tom Carper and Iowa’s Tom Harkin. Bennet’s rationale echoed the biggest gripe of Republican lawmakers -- that the bill does not do enough to reduce the nation’s exploding debt and the annual deficit.

“For four years in my town-hall meetings across the state, Coloradans have told me they want a plan that materially reduces the deficit,” Bennet explained in a statement. “This proposal does not meet that standard and does not put in place a real process to reduce the debt down the road.” He added, “Putting the country on a sustainable fiscal path and bringing our debt under control is incredibly important to our economy and our standing in the world and is a top priority for me.”

White House sources say they weren’t irked by Bennet’s stance. As one noted, “Hard to be mad at 89-9.” (The final vote count in the Senate early Tuesday morning was actually 89-8.)

The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd opined about his vote: “In a Congress that has become opera bouffe, Bennet is the freckled blond choir boy singing a cappella.”

And according to a veteran Democrat in Colorado who is close to Bennet, his decision has thus far played very well with leaders in the state across the political spectrum. But that source wondered what the vote would mean for Bennet’s fellow Democratic senator from the Centennial State, Mark Udall, who is up for re-election next year. As a fellow Coloradan and as the DSCC chair, who must direct energy and resources to various party candidates next year, Bennet will have to champion Udall on two levels.

“It puts Mark in a weird spot,” the source said, noting that the two men don’t vote differently very often.

In a statement, Udall treated his own vote gingerly: "This is not the deal I would have written, but we cannot ignore the need to protect taxpayers, businesses and our fragile economy from the destructive effects of the fiscal cliff. When Congress reconvenes in 2013, I will continue to push for a bipartisan deal on the deficit that grows our economy and responsibly reforms the federal government."

As for one of the other Democrats who joined Bennet in voting no, deficit reduction was never mentioned. Harkin, who has not decided whether to run for a sixth term next year, complained that the deal raised too little revenue. (Harkin was leaning toward retiring in 2008, but then-DSCC Chairman Chuck Schumer convinced him otherwise. Sources say he will announce his intentions about the coming cycle later this year.)

“This agreement locks in a tax structure that is grossly unfair to middle-class Americans, one which provides permanent tax assistance to wealthy Americans, and only temporary relief to everyone else,” Harkin said. He added, “Every dollar that wealthy taxpayers do not pay under this deal, we will eventually ask Americans of modest means to forgo in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits.”

Carper’s decision to vote against the bill was out of irritation that a truly “grand bargain” was never reached.

“Two months from now, we face the prospect of yet another debt ceiling crisis and more turmoil that will discourage a lot of American businesses from investing their cash in hiring new employees that will help our economy grow,” he complained in a statement.

The five Republican senators who voted against the legislation cited the bill’s lack of spending cuts. Two of them, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Charles Grassley of Iowa, are veterans of the upper chamber who will not seek higher office. But the situation is different for Rand Paul of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Utah. All three are Tea Party heroes, and Paul and Rubio are contemplating presidential runs in 2016.

And that, in part, is why Bennet’s vote has Washington chattering. Is he, too, considering a presidential bid?

At least one source who is close to the senator personally says yes, but that he would abandon those ambitions for the 2016 cycle should Secretary of State Hillary Clinton jump into the ring.

C.R. Wooters, a Democratic operative for the public affairs firm Purple Strategies, brushed off the 2016 talk for Bennet, but pointed out that “he has one of the best political teams in the Senate.”

And as far as Bennet’s political capital in the years ahead is concerned, Wooters noted that the first-term senator has shown Democrats, including President Obama, how to win in Colorado, which has cemented his status as a valuable player for the party. 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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