WASHINGTON — The Democrat in charge of trying to run Republicans out of the Senate in 2014 is courting those same lawmakers for an agreement on immigration.
Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet is working closely with Republicans on a rewrite of immigration policy he co-authored. At the same time, he's responsible for defeating as many Republican Senate candidates as possible in 2014, including one of his bill's co-sponsors.
As Bennet juggles his role as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee with bipartisan negotiations on immigration policy, his election targets include Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of eight senators instrumental in shaping the immigration bill. This is another measure of the political difficulty of enacting legislation that, as drafted, offers employers more access to both lower-skilled and higher- skilled workers in the U.S. on visas while offering those here without proper papers a path to citizenship.
So far, Republicans say, Bennet is focused on the bill.
"He helped move the bill forward when it was stuck," Graham said of Bennet in an interview, relaying a joke he shared with his political opponent. "I told him to spend all the money in South Carolina he wants to; I'm going to beat his brains out."
Bennet, 48, has established a reputation in the Senate as a policy-oriented lawmaker who wants to be part of centrist coalitions focused on tough issues like immigration and the federal budget deficit. He worked closely with Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Republicans Orrin Hatch of Utah and Marco Rubio of Florida to resolve an eleventh-hour dispute over farmworker visas that risked unraveling the broader legislation.
Still, the desire of Republicans not to alienate their party's base could complicate their stance on the immigration rewrite that leaders see as critical for their party's future.
As chairman of the Senate Democrats' campaign committee for the 2014 elections, Bennet is assuming a role that leaders before him have tackled: toggling between lawmaking and electioneering. New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a captain of his party's agenda in the Senate, ran the 2006 and 2008 campaigns. Washington Sen. Patty Murray had the job most recently while serving as a co-chairman of the 2011 deficit- reduction supercommittee.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington, doesn't anticipate that Bennet's role as DSCC chairman will make Republicans skeptical of his work on immigration. Bennet turned down Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's, D-Nev., offer to head the campaign committee for the 2012 election before accepting the position for 2014.
"I don't think his Republican counterparts are looking at him terribly suspiciously," Duffy said in a telephone interview. "There is always this inherent tension for any chairman of a campaign committee."
Bennet and Rubio worked late into the night of April 11 in Feinstein's office with representatives of farmworkers and growers to hammer out an agreement on protections for U.S. workers that was stalling the broader accord.
"It was very difficult because the issues are incredibly meaningful to both the growers and the farmworkers, and they both have legitimate points of view," Bennet said during an April 19 interview at his downtown Denver office.
U.S. businesses, including technology firms and crop growers, could gain access to new workers if the proposal is enacted. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobbying group, has been intensely involved in the negotiations, particularly over wage rates that businesses would be required to pay foreign workers.
Schumer, the chamber's third-ranking Democrat and another co-author of the immigration proposal, has praised Bennet's role in brokering the agriculture accord, which he said could prove essential to garnering support for the overall measure from Republican senators.
Bennet said his interest in tackling what would be the first major rewrite of immigration law in nearly 30 years stems from his experiences traveling across Colorado during his 2010 Senate campaign.
"It came up everywhere in very different ways," Bennet said. "The peach growers had one set of issues, the cattle ranchers another set of issues, the immigrant-rights community another set."
"What I realized was these different interests didn't know each other was interested and didn't know each other was being affected by the broken system," he added.
Bennet's signature contribution to the Senate's immigration plan is a program that would make a three-year visa available to foreign entrepreneurs. To be eligible, they would have to secure at least $100,000 in investments or start a U.S. business that has created at least three jobs and generated at least $250,000 in annual revenue for two years.
According to the senator's staff, one of every 10 Colorado entrepreneurs is an immigrant.
Bennet "really listens to what people would like to have done and he struggles to understand exactly what that is" and "if it makes sense to him," said Tom Clark, chief executive officer of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., adding that he considers Bennet a "personal friend."
In addition to his role on immigration, Bennet has carved out a centrist position on fiscal issues. He and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander last fall expanded the Senate's group of lawmakers who unsuccessfully sought a deficit-reduction agreement.
On Jan. 1, Bennet was one of just three Democrats who opposed legislation to avert part of the so-called fiscal cliff of $600 billion in tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect at the start of the year.
"I voted against it because it did almost nothing, and maybe literally nothing, to address the deficit," Bennet said in an interview a few weeks later. "We can't fix it overnight; we understand that. But I think the capital markets and businesses generally across the country need to see over the next decade we're going to get a hold of this."
Bennet was appointed in 2009 to fill the remaining Senate term of Democrat Ken Salazar, who had left to become Interior Department secretary in President Obama's first-term Cabinet. Before that, Bennet was superintendent of the Denver Public Schools and chief of staff to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, now governor.
Obama had considered tapping Bennet as his education secretary, and he was one of a handful of Democratic senators invited to a post-inaugural party at the White House in January.
Before his involvement in politics and education, Bennet worked as managing director at Anschutz Investment Co.
Bennet's first election — to keep his Senate seat — in 2010 was successful, as he narrowly won a full term with the help of the national party organization he now heads.
His three predecessors as Senate campaign chairmen hailed from Democratic strongholds in New York, New Jersey and Washington state. Unlike them, Bennet is from a state where the electorate is almost evenly divided three ways among Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Colorado's partisan divide is evident between the Democratic-leaning areas surrounding Denver along the Front Range and Republican-leaning rural enclaves on the Eastern plains and in and around Colorado Springs, the state's second- largest city.
Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor — one of four Democrats seeking re-election next year in a state that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney carried in November — said Bennet's experience running in Colorado, which Obama narrowly won last year, helps him understand the challenges red-state Democrats face.
"He's from Colorado, he gets it: He knows that every state is very different," Pryor said.
Bennet also will be in charge of helping field candidates to defend seats in Iowa, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, South Dakota and West Virginia — states where the incumbent Democrats have opted not to seek re-election.
"The DSCC helped me in my race a lot, and when they asked once I said no," Bennet said. "They asked twice, and it was harder to say no."
Pryor said he didn't anticipate that Bennet's role in Senate electioneering would create a conflict for the Colorado lawmaker as the immigration rewrite advances.
"He's not conniving," Pryor said. "He's not always scheming to get some advantage over you. If you look at how he conducts his business, he really talks about the merits of issues and he's very substantive.'
Arizona Sen. John McCain, another co-author of the immigration bill and the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, said Bennet's campaign role hasn't been a factor during the negotiations over the legislation.
''He did a fine job," McCain said, "and he's able to separate that out."