HELENA — Five months into his job as Montana’s only congressman, Republican Steve Daines has compiled a solidly conservative voting record, lining up with fellow Republicans on everything from repealing "Obamacare” to an austere budget that would revamp Medicare.
Most of the key measures supported by Daines are dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled Senate and squarely opposed by President Barack Obama — but Daines says that’s not what’s important.
“I don’t believe President Obama is in step with the majority of the views of most Montanans,” he said in an interview last week. “So when I go down to the floor and cast a vote, I think about, first of all, ‘What do the people of Montana want me to do on this?’ – not, ‘What does President Obama think about it?’
“The people of Montana elected me, but they didn’t vote for President Obama.”
In addition to the Obamacare repeal and the House Republican budget, Daines also has voted for a bill allowing private companies to pay “comp time” instead of cash for overtime, for greenlighting the Keystone XL oil pipeline and for a bill that would increase interest rates on student loans.
Yet while Daines mostly sticks to the conservative agenda, the new kid on Montana’s congressional block says he wants to work with the state’s Democratic U.S. senators on issues important to Montana.
Daines has breakfast or lunch at least once a month with Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus and their respective chiefs of staff to talk turkey about Montana issues before Congress.
“If we’re going to represent our state as effectively as possible, it’s important that we align on many issues that are important to Montana,” he said. “And we’re finding a lot of common ground.”
For example, Daines said he is supporting Baucus’ bill to protect the forest west of the North Fork of the Flathead River from oil, gas and other mining development, and will introduce his own version in the House.
Daines, 50, who won election as Montana’s sole U.S. representative just seven months ago, now finds himself as the top Republican officeholder in the state.
He won the seat left vacant by U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who unsuccessfully challenged Tester in 2012.
This weekend, Daines will be the keynote speaker at this year’s state Republican Party convention in Bozeman, and also is being courted to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated next year by Baucus.
Daines said he’s made no decision on that race, but said he has spoken with the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which recruits and assists GOP candidates nationwide for the U.S. Senate. He said he’ll give the race “thoughtful consideration” after talking with his family, supporters and constituents.
In the meantime, Daines is getting his feet wet and working to carve out a niche for himself as the congressman from Montana.
Montana is the largest congressional district in the country, with 1 million people, and Daines said a big part of the job is just keeping up with the correspondence: “We receive more phone calls, emails and letters in our office than any other office in Congress.”
Issues foremost on the minds of Montanans contacting his office are opposition to gun control, support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, opposition to an Internet sales tax and concerns about the onset of Obamacare, Daines said.
Daines also sits on the House Natural Resources Committee and said he’s been looking for ways to foster resource development, from oil to timber to renewable power.
Toward that end, he has been talking with Tester about the latter’s forest jobs and recreation act, a bill that would create new wilderness in Montana and encourage logging on other sections of the forest.
Tester’s bill, adamantly opposed by Daines’ predecessor, Rehberg, has been tied up in the Senate for a couple of years.
However, Daines said he has not signed onto Tester’s bill and does not think that creating new wilderness is “the only path forward to increasing timber harvests in our state.”
“I think we have to look at all of the options, (and) that is one option sitting on the table,” he said. “There may be some other options, too. … I think there will be other vehicles to improve timber harvests besides having a quid pro quo of wilderness.”
Tester spokesman Dan Malessa said Friday that Tester will continue to work with Daines on the measure but that the bill already represents a “coming together” by a broad range of interests on the issue.
“Only a balanced solution like Jon’s that creates jobs, improves forest health, maintains recreational opportunities and preserves our most treasured lands will break through the stalemate that has plagued our forest management for too long,” he said.
Daines also has been named to a House Republican group called the House Obamacare Accountability Project, which will monitor the impacts of the new health care law on business, consumers and access to health care, among other things.
“There is a lot of concern about what Obamacare is going to do to insurance rates, premiums, jobs, and related to accessibility to health care,” he said. “Montanans are bringing this up with us.”