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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

As Zinke Waits For Confirmation, Some Montanans Worry About Representation

Congressman Ryan Zinke testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee January 17.
Congressman Ryan Zinke testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee January 17.

If the Senate votes to confirm Representative Ryan Zinke as the next Interior Secretary, he will become the first Montanan to hold a cabinet level position. This first has many Montanans wondering, how does this work?

The process itself it fairly straightforward: Once Representative Zinke is confirmed by the full Senate, he will likely resign his House seat, triggering state-level actions.

Governor Steve Bullock will have 85 to 100 days to call a special election, and each of the state’s major parties will quickly hold nomination conventions to choose a candidate to run in the special election.

Straightforward, right? The problem is, it's still unclear when the Senate will vote to confirm Zinke, which some people say effectively leaves Montana without a representative in the House.

"The confirmation process for these cabinet posts is taking way longer than usual," says Rob Saldin, professor of political science at the University of Montana.

"That does raise some logistical issues for Zinke, whose confirmation isn't in doubt, but who nonetheless has to sit around waiting for the Senate to take action," Saldin says.

During this waiting period, Saldin says there are no legal barriers preventing Zinke from carrying on his usual work.

But Zinke hasn’t voted since January 5, and some of his constituents find that troubling.

"It makes me wonder if Zinke is representing the people of Montana right now."

That’s Karin Riley of Missoula. She recently got in touch with Zinke's Helena office to talk about a bill, and says she never received the email she asked for confirming that her comment reached Representative Zinke.

And she’s worried about Zinke not voting:

"That would seem to not fulfill the tenets of democracy. We need to have a voice in Congress right now," Riley says.

Jeff Essmann, chairman of the Montana State Republican Party, says it's customary practice for sitting representatives and senators to abstain from voting while awaiting confirmation. He says in periods of transition, like what we’re in now, people often find themselves in a, "damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't" paradox.

Representative Zinke and his staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding his recent voting record or plans for transition.

The three other representatives who recently became cabinet members abstained from all votes this session; they are: Mike Pompeo of Kansas, now director of the CIA; Tom Price of Georgia, Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Zinke has voted on 13 of 99 measures this session, all on January 5.

On a conference call with Montana reporters Wednesday afternoon, Senator Jon Tester said Zinke is one of President Donald Trump’s less controversial cabinet nominees:

"I believe he will get confirmed once that hits the floor, I’ve talked to a number of Democrats who will support him. I don’t think he's going to have any problem getting confirmation, it's just a matter of floor time to get it done."

The Democratic senator said he hasn't gotten word when Zinke's confirmation will come before the Senate, adding that if it's not this week, it will be the week after next, as Senators will be in recess next week visiting their home states.

While the wait has been unusual, Tester says Zinke needs to continue his work representing Montanans until he resigns his position:

"He needs to still be voting, still needs to have staff answer the phones. He's still on the payroll."

Tester says Zinke has not attended the past two Montana Coffee events, a constituent breakfast co-sponsored by Tester, Zinke and Senator Steve Daines.

At least a dozen people — six Democrats and six Republicans — have expressed interest in the seat Zinke will leave open if he's confirmed. The Montana Democratic Party has reserved space in Helena for at least the past two Sundays on the chance the vote happens. The Montana GOP is looking at the weekends of March 11 and 12, or 18 and 19, as a potential nomination convention date, also in Helena.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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