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Those of us on the left of center are still nursing the gash made by the Montana House Human Services Committee vote on HB 249 Friday evening. The wound is especially deep because of the types of articles we have seen on this very Web site: the Neo-Nazi links to the President of the Montana Senate and another staffer who was a registered lobbyist, the assorted bills that have or have not yet received a vote, and the distasteful feeling that a group of citizen legislators who control the process are not so much answering to citizens. It is easy to lose perspective in the face of this.
It is also easy to lose hope and view the other side as evil. Just look at the comments section any given day. There is no doubt there are some truly evil people in the Montana GOP. But a group of Republicans are also not happy with how things are going. They may not appreciate being lauded or written about by someone from the left but that is what I want to do. And to make it more dramatic, this session they will determine the fate of their party and how voters perceive Montana’s government.
They are Republicans like Representative Steve Fitzpatrick. Before the break, Fitzpatrick took to the House floor to denounce the support and vote on the so-called “Agenda 21” bill. It was a ridiculous vote and the bill did not pass. Even some on the extreme edge of the GOP did not vote for it. Shortly after that, Fitzpatrick introduced HB 454, a bill that would alter how candidates get to the ballot and would salvage the primary process rather than accept the purity test other Republicans desire.
It is in the vote for HB 454 that you can see the battle lines for the bills that are about to come. There are probably other bills that show this, but I consider this vote the litmus test for what is possible in the House. It was 54-45 and you can pick out the 13 Republicans who broke with the rank-and-file to pass this bill. Maybe a couple hit the wrong button but even so, that leaves at 10-11 members who can make that all important majority on the floor. These are the ones who can continue to break free and pass the key bills of this session. They can also take others with them–*cough* Kelly Flynn *cough* (I know you have it in you Representative Flynn, you said such great things about financing BMAs in your committee and have taken some dip-my-toes-in-moderation votes on the floor.)
This group that creates a majority on the floor includes people like Christy Clark, Frank Garner, and Jeff Welborn. All of whom received surprise visits from Americans for Prosperity in their districts and mailers featuring them in juxtaposition with the President. I’m guessing none of them voted for President Obama and I can respect that. But they want rural health care and to keep their hospitals running. Now they will not have that chance. There are other rural Republicans in the same boat, but they have been silent so far.
This baker’s dozen of Republicans are targeted for being too soft and liberal, which is insane given their voting records and endorsements. In the face of it, Representative Clark had the courage to say, “I signed their stupid pledge and they’re still on me.” Such a telling quote.
When the Montana GOP staffed the Human Services Committee—assuredly with the aid of outside groups and the Republican members of Congress—they knew exactly what they were doing. None of the 13 who voted for HB 454 are on it. In fact, very few of the 13 are on any of the committees hearing the key bills this session. If HB 249 came to the floor, I would wager that nearly all of them would vote for it and that is why Chairman Art Wittich was so quick to defeat it.
HB 249 faces a tough challenge to get to the floor and even though time has passed, Minority Leader Chuck Hunter has left open the option to use the Rules Committee. It’s messy, but that would work for most of the big bills given the committee dynamics. It will take 60 votes to bring it up and the lift for another six is heavy indeed. You have to wonder if there aren’t several other Republicans willing to at least give the bill a proper hearing on the House floor. This baker’s dozen of Republicans should do what they can to sway some votes to at least bring this bill to the floor.
The Senate is obviously a friendlier place for the key bills and has a good slate of moderates who would ensure the bills end up on the Governor’s desk. Again, a campaign finance vote showcased who they are when Senator Duane Ankney’s SB 289 passed 28-22. Seven Republicans voted with the Democrats. Among them was Senator Ed Buttrey who is floating a Medicaid bill of his own and Democrats will also need to moderate if his bill can pass. I am not crazy about people in poverty having to pay when most of them have pennies left in their budget at the end of the month. But that is better than no care. If HB 249 can’t make it off the table then Buttrey deserves the same level of support as it received.
If Ankney’s campaign finance bill gets through House committee, it should pass with that majority of 54 or so on the floor. It was a bit of bureaucratic genius to watch Fitzpatrick, some other moderates, and the Democratic caucus move it to the moderate-packed business and labor committee earlier last week. Who was at the helm? Representative Fitzpatrick, no less. So at least, with the support of Republican moderates in committee and on the floor, campaign finance will see the light of day. It makes sense, given they are the ones taking the brunt of the attacks from out-of-state dark money meant to flip this state.
And if you look at it, based on the votes in the House, the Tea Party/Libertarian wing of the GOP is a minority party. They are strong and in control, but they are a minority in some of the votes they so strongly want to bring to the floor. The danger for Montana, and the state GOP and outside forces know it, is that nothing passes and nothing happens. If your philosophy is that the government is broken, then you make sure to break it. The inertia in D.C. has turned citizens against the process. By doing that in Montana, as they are in other states, these groups ensure they remain in power. If the moderates want to legislate, they need to legislate. If they do nothing or have nothing to show, they will lose elections because of growing voter apathy. This is what the forces behind the Montana GOP want.
The fringes are loud and controlling but I refuse to believe that they represent Montana. Their voice and power has grown too strong. It would be a welcome change to make this a legislative session where we—citizens and citizen legislators—took some of that power and voice back. I write this as an appeal to the 13 Republicans in the House and the seven in the Senate who took a tough votes on campaign finance bills to keep their backbones for the tougher votes to come. I appeal to them to work with others in the GOP who are on the edge. If they are worried about not being re-elected, the easiest way to ensure that outcome is to do nothing.
So let’s salve the wounds, pick ourselves back up, and find some not so distant soldiers-at-arms for the coming battles. Encourage Democratic legislators and those key moderate Republicans to work with one another to get things done. Legislators need to ignore those voices on the extreme right wing minority of the House and Senate and work with your fellow Montanans across the aisle. We only get one shot at this every two years and giving the radical right of the Montana GOP the apathy they desire would poison our politics for years to come.