Negotiations on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives broke down last week as the supposedly bipartisan Farm Bill suffered from another round of partisan quarreling. Representatives on both sides of the aisle are now pointing fingers, and everyone from the Montana Farm Bureau Federation to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has expressed frustration and disappointment over the failure. With the current one-year Farm Bill extension set to expire Sept. 30, there's no clear message from Congress on how it plans to advance the issue.
Among the voices maligning that setback is Republican Rep. Steve Daines. Now six months into his first term as Montana's lone representative, Daines called the House's inaction "a prime example of what is wrong with Washington." Daines was among the 171 Republicans and 24 Democrats who voted in favor of the Farm Bill, a five-year, $500 billion reauthorization that provides a financial safety net for agricultural producers, as well as funds the nation's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.
Daines' vote seems to have cost him traction among some conservative allies, and certainly didn't curry favor with progressives who balked at $20.5 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade.
"There was plenty of finger pointing to go around on both sides," Daines told the Indy this week. "It's not clear to me what ultimately caused the Farm Bill to fail ... At the end of the day, I don't think the people of Montana and this country elected us to spend most of our time finger-pointing."
Daines has a demonstrated track record of voting with his GOP peers. He's also called for a full repeal of the Affordable Care Act and publicly opposed abortion and gay marriage. But there are small signs of compromise in Daines' freshman term, including a willingness to work with Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, unlike his predecessor, Denny Rehberg. Daines has joined both Democratic senators once a week for coffee with constituents, and the three meet once a month to discuss upcoming initiatives and proposals.
"Steve's willingness to work across the aisle and put Montana values first is refreshing," Tester says. "Working together is the best way to get something done in Washington."
That budding relationship is largely what led Daines to introduce a version of Baucus' North Fork Watershed Protection Act in the House earlier this month. The bill would ban future oil, coal and natural gas leases on federal property along the North and Middle forks of the Flathead River. Baucus' companion proposal has already passed the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee with unanimous supportsomething Daines sees as a sign of bipartisan potential.
"Where do we have stronger consensus on these different bills, and where do we have reasonable probability of getting the bills through the House and the Senate?" Daines asks. "The North Fork bill passes both those tests."
For some in the conservation community, Daines' willingness to carry the North Fork bill marks a significant shift.
"I think you've seen a swing over the past 10 to 15 years where more Democrats are supporting conservation measures and less Republicans are," says Trevor Kincaid, executive director of the national nonprofit Center for Western Priorities. "If Daines is really able to take this as a first step and maybe work with some of the members from Utah or Republican members from Colorado or New Mexico and start putting together a package of conservation legislation, that would be a great boon for the economies in western states."
Daines has yet to take a firm stance on two other high-profile pieces of Montana legislation: Baucus' Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act and Tester's Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. The hesitation is largely due to widely differing opinions from Montanans, Daines explains. The congressman held a listening session on the Heritage Act in Choteau this spring. As for Tester's FJRA, Daines says he's working toward building support for the measure in the House, but has concerns with the bill's wilderness designations.
"Realistically, what are the chances I would have in getting a bill to even have a committee hearing with these wilderness designations?" Daines asks.
The bigger question for Daines is whether he'll be able to move either measure forward in a House that couldn't even pass a carefully negotiated Farm Bill. Daines voted in favor of an amendment from Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Florida, to allow states to institute work requirements for SNAP recipientsthe amendment Democrats blame for the bill's failure. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wisc., testified on the House floor that the Southerland amendment should be named "'The State Bonuses for Terminating SNAP Benefits for People Who Want to Work but Can't Find a Job Because They're in a Recession.'"
"I'm always going to be looking for ideas and ways to reform programs, make them a little better than they were before," Daines says. "And I think it's a reasonable amendment."
But Daines' actions during the Farm Bill debate couldn't even win him the full support of the right. Before the bill's final vote, Daines had a 100 percent policy score from Americans for Prosperity, a right-wing nonprofit that spent $33.5 million opposing President Barack Obama's reelection. AFP had launched a massive campaign opposing the Farm Bill, and Daines' "yes" vote dropped his score to 83 percent. Joe Balyeat, a former Montana state senator and director of AFP's Montana chapter, says he "wasn't completely surprised," but adds that Daines "made a mistake."
"The people who elected me are the people of Montana, not any particular special interest group," Daines says of AFP's reaction. "And I will not bow to any special interest group to dictate to me how I should vote on a particular piece of legislation."