Seeking a sixth term in the U.S. House, Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg is navigating an electoral landscape unique to this moment in American politics. As a Republican, he stands to benefit from a midterm election in November that most analysts expect will sweep dozens of conservatives into the House and could hand the majority back to the GOP. But as an incumbent, Rehberg must contend with an electorate frustrated by Washington D.C. in general, conditions that have resulted in him facing two Republican challengers in a June primary.
“This is the first time I’ve had a primary, which is fine,” Rehberg said during a wide-ranging, hour-long interview at the Beacon office over the weekend. “We’re Republicans, so we ought to encourage the free market system: Competition is good.”
Primary challenger Mark French, a conservative scientist from Paradise, is positioning himself to the right of Rehberg, while A.J. Otjen, an MSU-Billings business professor is running to his left, leaving the incumbent in a place he’s unaccustomed to: the middle.
“All of a sudden I look like the moderate and that never happens,” Rehberg said. “I feel a little uncomfortable.”
In another sign of the different forces vying for prominence within the GOP tent, Rehberg planned to meet with a local Tea Party group before headlining the traditional Republican Lincoln Day dinner that evening.
“One of the things I say in my speeches at the Republican Lincoln days is embrace the Tea Party; do not ignore them. Any politician that thinks they’re irritation will do so at their own folly,” Rehberg said. “These are people that are scared or mad or (have) a certain level of anxiety or anger. So you better not ignore it, and I don’t. I want to know what they’re thinking, why they believe what they do and what they think the solutions are.”
At 54, Rehberg’s dark hair is increasingly gray, but he maintains an almost frenetic energy, speaking rapidly and drawing on examples from his experience as a lieutenant governor and time in the Legislature, an institution he regards as significantly more functional than the federal government.
Four Democrats seek to unseat Rehberg: Missoula attorney Tyler Gernant; Melville rancher and former state party chair Dennis McDonald; Missoula paralegal Melinda Gopher; and Billings real estate broker Sam Rankin.
Rehberg hopes voters decide, in June and November, to send him back to Congress, where he plans to use his seat on the Appropriations Committee – should Republicans regain a majority – to rein in federal spending and hold up specific provisions of the landmark health care overhaul recently passed by Democrats. He acknowledged the cry of “repeal and replace” other Republicans are using as their mantra against the new health care law, which Rehberg opposed, isn’t realistic as long as President Barack Obama remains in the White House and wields veto power.
But Rehberg believes he and fellow Republicans may be able to hold up funding for specific provisions of the legislation they oppose, like the requirement or “mandate” that all Americans buy health insurance.
“One of the things we would like to do is when the appropriations bills come to the floor, say in the case of the mandates, no money can be spent on the enforcement of the mandate. You cannot hire 16,000 new IRS agents to enforce that provision or something along that line,” Rehberg said. “So before we have the opportunity to undo what we think they did to the American public, in this huge bill, there are small steps we can take along the way, all the while trying to gain the majority back and the presidency back.”
Rehberg’s chief criticism of the health care overhaul is that it focuses on expanding insurance coverage, but does little to control the rising cost of medical treatment.
“I think the American public thinks that this is going to control the cost of health care, that their health care costs are going to get cheaper, well it isn’t,” he said. “Controlling the cost of health insurance doesn’t do anything other than help you pay for an ever-increasing system.”
Now that the health care bill has passed, Rehberg said Republicans seek to overturn unpopular parts of the legislation, while leaving popular provisions intact, like the new requirement on insurance companies to cover individuals with preexisting conditions.
“What we’ll attempt to do is try and make the health care reform reflective of what the American public wants and they want it to control the cost of health care. So if it means leaving preexisting conditions, that section of that law in place, why would we undo that?” Rehberg said. “But get at the rest, like the mandates, the taxes, anything that pushes people off their ability to choose their own doctor or their own hospital or potentially lose their health care coverage under their employer. It’ll be some combination thereof.”
Rehberg was also among the House Republicans who swore off Congressional earmarks for a year as a way to underscore federal spending under Democratic leadership. Such spending accounts for less than 1 percent of the overall budget, and the funds are already allocated; the earmarks simply address where the money will go. But while such a move may not do much to relieve the larger problems of the deficit, Rehberg believes it’s a start toward fiscal discipline.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, that’s a pittance.’ OK, so a pittance doesn’t matter? Alright. Good. Why don’t you go ahead and give me that billion dollars from Montana and the billion across the country because for every dollar Montana gets remember, I’m just one of 435, and then there are a hundred senators,” he said. “So all of a sudden, it starts adding up.”
“The next piece of legislation we’re going to introduce is to say any of the money saved from not earmarking then has to go to debt retirement, then the next step is zero-based budgeting,” Rehberg added. “What you do is you incrementally build the opportunity to balance the budget.”
Rehberg blasted federal spending under Democratic leadership and nearly all of the major initiatives introduced over the last year, from the stimulus to Obama’s recent announcement opening up offshore oil drilling along U.S. coastlines for not being expansive enough.
“I pray to God (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi never figures out the word after a trillion because the omnibus 09-10 was a trillion, the stimulus was a trillion, the health care, you know they wanted to keep under a trillion,” Rehberg said. “It’s like somehow this has become the magical number.”
He was also critical of his fellow members of Montana’s federal delegation, Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, who he said could pay a price at the polls for their support of a health care overhaul that many of their constituents opposed. Rehberg pointed to the advertisements Baucus is running in support of the health care bill as evidence.
“It tells you that he did something contrary to the desires or the beliefs or the philosophy of Montana and he doesn’t want to pay the price five years from now,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Rehberg, however, will find out this year what voters think of the job he has been doing for close to a decade in Washington.
“I’m running for the one seat for Congress in Montana and people want leadership,” Rehberg said. “And a leader that quits listening probably isn’t going to be around very long.”
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