HELENA — Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., has joined the House’s new Tea Party Caucus.
Rehberg already belongs to such informal groups as the Congressional Rural Caucus, Firefighter Caucus, Forest Caucus, Northwest Energy Caucus, Sportsmen’s Caucus and Western Caucus.
He defended joining the Tea Party Caucus in a statement Thursday:
“You don’t have to be an extremist to participate in the Tea Party, and most of those who participate in Montana are folks who are rightly frustrated by where (Democratic House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi is taking their country.”
Rehberg was one the 40 early joiners of the House Tea Party Caucus founded by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., which met for the first time Wednesday.
“While progressive interest groups have made disparaging and disingenuous claims about the Tea Parties, they have done so from the safety and security of their Washington, D.C., headquarters,” Rehberg said. “If you refuse to get out and actually listen to what people are saying, it’s easy to mistake the voter frustration for irrational extremism. That mistake lets you discount it completely.”
He said called Tea Parties “the rational reaction when the federal government blows through $1 trillion for a so-called stimulus bill that actually hurts job growth, while racking up $13 trillion on the taxpayers’ credit card, saddling every man, woman and child in America with more than $40,000 in debt.”
Rehberg, first elected to the House, in 2000, faced his first Republican congressional primary challenge ever in June.
He defeated Mark French, who labeled himself a “constitutional conservative” and invoked some Tea Party rhetoric in calling the five-term congressman an out-of-touch Washington insider. Rehberg won 75 percent of the vote to French’s 20 percent, while A.J. Otjen had 5 percent.
After the primary, Rehberg told the Associated Press: “The Tea Party movement should not and cannot be ignored. Any politician that makes light of their anger and concern is foolish.”
His Democratic opponent, Dennis McDonald, a Melville rancher, said he’s puzzled that Rehberg would join the Tea Party Caucus.
“If you look at his record in Congress, one would conclude he’s not a conservative,” McDonald said. “He’s a big spender. He votes for legislation that intrudes into people’s privacy. Those are not positions a conservative would take.”
McDonald cited Rehberg’s votes for the Patriot Act and Real ID Act and his consistent votes to spend money “we don’t have” during the Bush-Cheney administration during his first eight years in Congress, “including a trillion-dollar giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry.”
“He put it on Uncle Sam’s credit card and is asking our children to pay for it,” McDonald said. “Likewise, he voted to put the cost of two wars on Uncle Sam’s credit card.”
In response to a question, McDonald said he probably wouldn’t join the Tea Party Caucus if he’s elected.
“Though I appreciate a number of the positions of the Tea Party in general, their approach to the issues of the day I don’t think are accurate,” he said. “Mostly, I won’t sway all of the members I know have an extreme right wing view.”