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10 Days Into Shutdown, 'We've Got To Do Better Than This'


Now, the partial shutdown prompted angry debate across the country. But at the center of that debate, we found quiet yesterday. We dropped by a Senate office building where the halls were empty. Papers taped on doors read: We regret that due to the government shutdown, our office is closed.

We found Sen. Michael Bennett in a lonely office with only a few staff at work. The Colorado Democrat is a soft-spoken lawmaker, a one-time school superintendent from a swing state. He is also in charge of the Democrat's Senate campaign for 2014.

We had Congressman Raul Labrador - Republican - on the program, who argued that Democrats have been only too happy to shut down the government because it makes Republicans look bad. And Democrats are just trying to win seats in 2014.

SEN. MICHAEL BENNETT: I think it's very clear that Democrats don't want to shut the government down. And at home, it's very clear to me that Democrats, Republicans and independents don't want the government shut down. There's a handful of people in the House, and a handful of people in the Senate, that are pursuing a politics that's way outside the lines of conventional American political thought. And that has led them to a place where they want to shut the government down. And we've got to do better than this.

INSKEEP: But you know what Republicans have said - come on, all we wanted to do was negotiate; why wouldn't you guys negotiate with us?

BENNETT: Well, these are all process issues that can't overcome the substantive reality that this government, for no good reason, is closed. And I'm open to discussions with anybody about any topic that they want to talk about. But we've got to open the government up. We need to send a signal to the international economy that we're not going to blow up the full faith and credit of the United States; and we need to start doing some things that can help an economy that's beginning to come back.

INSKEEP: Is the president right to say, I won't talk until you reopen the government?

BENNETT: You know, I think the issue that the president faces is that the divide on this issue - in terms of getting the government open, in terms of making sure we protect the full faith and credit of the United States - the divide between Democrats and Republicans, I think, is less than the divide that exists in the Republican Party in Washington, D.C.

INSKEEP: Explain what you mean.

BENNETT: I mean that he doesn't have somebody to negotiate with because the speaker has a group of people in his caucus that so far, have been unwilling to take a rational approach to this.

INSKEEP: Advance this a little bit for me, if you can, because I heard the president say this week he would be comfortable with a not totally clean continuing resolution - attach something that assures there will be negotiations afterward, I believe, is a paraphrase of what he said. I have heard House Republicans say that they have been discussing such a plan, although I don't know if there are enough votes for it or not.

How can you reassure Republicans, who just aren't going to trust your motives or trust the president's motives, that they will get something substantive that they need out of this situation, where they say they have genuine concerns.

BENNETT: Well, first of all, I think we have to find ourselves headed toward a place where our automatic reaction to people on the other side of the aisle is to not trust their motives. We need to get to a place where people actually trust each other's motives. And I know there are people that are listening to this that are going to say, that's impossible.

I've seen it. You know, I was part of the so-called Gang of Eight that negotiated the immigration bill in the Senate - four Democrats and four Republicans. My judgment in the four years I've been here, I've never seen a greater expression of legislative leadership than that provided by John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio, the four Republicans that sat at that table for seven months. That ought to be the standard that we are demanding of the people that are here; and unfortunately, right now, that's not the standard that people are living up to.

INSKEEP: Well, if that's the situation that we're in right now, how would you reassure the other side that they can get - I mean, because they argue they have legitimate budget concerns, concerns that you say you share.

BENNETT: I have the same budget concerns they have; and we've had numerous conversations over a long period of time, that have been bipartisan in the Senat. And I think we'd need to continue those. We need to build on those.

INSKEEP: Before I came here, I put a call out on Twitter - as I often do; said, I'm going over to talk to Sen. Bennett, anything you'd like to know? One of the questions was: What employment will he and all of his colleagues seek after we vote them out of office? People seem a little upset.

BENNETT: People should be upset. The government is closed. It's an outrage. It's ridiculous. It's an embarrassment. There's a reason we have a 9 percent approval rating. I used to spend a lot of time wondering why anybody would want to work in a place that had a 9 percent approval rating...

INSKEEP: (Laughter)

BENNETT: ... and there's actually an answer to that because if your ideology is about dismantling the federal government, having a 9 percent approval rating suits you just fine because you get to go home and say, see how horrible these people are? The more degraded they can make the government seem, the more it suits their ideological purposes. And that's what we - Democrats and Republicans - have to find a way to close over because it's not tolerable.

INSKEEP: Sen. Bennett, thanks very much for the time.

BENNETT: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Michael Bennett is a Democratic senator from Colorado. Now by the way, he mentioned a 9 percent approval rating. Of course, surveys do vary. An Associated Press poll out this week gave Congress' approval rating as 5 percent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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