Montana’s Republican lawmaker in the U.S. Senate touted Monday his bipartisan work to a crowd in one of the state’s most Democrat-voting cities.
Sen. Steve Daines spoke at City Club Missoula’s monthly luncheon at the DoubleTree Hotel about everything from gun control to public land ownership to the federal deficit to Mexican meth during a question-and-answer session. He was met with protesters outside the building who want him to work toward funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund fully with $900 million instead of just $600 million, and he was asked by a local high school student who endured a lockdown earlier this year to do more to pass gun control legislation.
In his opening statements, though, he touted his work across the aisle.
“You might be shocked to hear I have a bill right now with Elizabeth Warren,” he said, referring to legislation he and the Democratic senator from Massachusetts sponsored that would establish a database for orphaned 401(k) retirement funds. He also touted his work with Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
“If you read and watch and listen to the news today, there’s a message of the polarization going on in Washington and divide going on in our nation,” Daines said. “I don’t want to minimize that. That’s real. But there’s also a lot of bipartisan work that gets done.”
Daines pointed out that crime caused by meth from Mexico is a huge problem in Montana, saying violent crime rates have increased in Missoula.
“Why is petty crime up in Missoula? Why is all sorts of crime up in Missoula, and not just there but all over Montana? One answer is meth,” Daines said. “Meth is destroying families and communities across Montana.”
Daines said he worked with a bipartisan coalition of colleagues in the Senate to pass a major drug bill aimed at combating opioids, and he specifically worked to include language that would help fight meth use.
The Bozeman businessman also assailed the way that the federal government passes budget bills.
“My frustration is that the threat of a government shutdown is used as a negotiation tactic,” he said. “We need to end government shutdowns.”
He wants changes that “put the pain back on members of Congress if they can’t get a budget passed.”
One way to do that, he said, would be to stipulate that members of Congress don’t get paid if they don’t do the work: "If you can't pass a balanced budget, you shouldn't get paid." He noted that Montana law requires the state Legislature to pass a balanced budget, rather than relying on debt to finance tax cuts and spending, as happens at the federal level.
“That’s the reason we’re staring at $22 trillion worth of debt,” he said. “It would help if we had some accountability, first of all, to get a budget passed.”
The U.S. Treasury reported that the total U.S. national debt surpassed $22 trillion this past March. Daines voted for the Republican-led Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which decreased federal revenues, but has decried federal spending.
During the question-and-answer session, Daines was asked why he's remained silent on President Donald Trump's appointment of William Perry Pendley as acting head of the Bureau of Land Management. Pendley has a history of advocating for the sale of public lands. Daines pointed out that Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who is Pendley's boss, opposes the transfer of federal lands. Daines also stated that he's opposed as well to transferring federal lands to the states.
Daines spoke to a full house inside, and he was met with protesters outside.
Aaron Murphy, executive director of Montana Conservation Voters, was among about a dozen protesters with signs calling for Daines to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund with $900 million from offshore oil and gas revenues.
"It funds very important programs in all 50 states, hundreds of millions of dollars since its inception alone in Montana including fishing access points, trailheads, trails, city parks, the list goes on and on and on, all designed to promote public access," Murphy said.
Inside, Daines addressed the issue, saying when he asked the Senate Appropriations Committee for $600 million, it was like getting to a high-altitude base camp on Everest, with the $900 million goal being the summit.
"We want to get up the mountain," Daines said."It's going to take some time, but I'm confident we're going to get there."
Daines was asked how organizations like City Club can bring more civil debate to national politics. City Club aims to encourage discussion on critical topics through community forums. Daines said many people are living in their own "echo chamber."
"The concern I have is friendships are being lost," he said. "I grew up friends with Democrats. It's not a good thing for this country. It truly isn't. The more we can facilitate back-and-forth dialogue, we'll be better off as a country as opposed to sitting back and screaming."
When asked about gun control legislation, Daines said he's not planning on supporting expanded background checks for gun purchases.
"What I've seen here is not going to make our communities' safer," he said. "We should do something that actually keeps them safe. What I've seen so far would give us false hope."
He referred to the mass shooter in El Paso as a "white supremacist bigot" and referred to mass shooters as "absolutely evil killers."
After the question-and-answer session, Daines took the time to personally speak with constituents even though he was late for a drive to Kalispell.
Beatrice Erickson, a 15-year-old Sentinel High School student, was locked down in the gym showers in January after an ammo clip was found.
"For four hours we had to hide in the locker room showers," she said. "So I asked him what actions he'll take to contact the (National Rifle Association) and make change and like, keep us safe."
She said Daines' call for increased school security isn't enough for her.
"It doesn't happen, so it's not satisfactory," she said.