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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Sen. Daines talks spending, defense and taking on Tester

Sen. Steve Daines
Official portrait
Sen. Steve Daines

The 118th Congress is now well underway following a midterm election that left Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans flipped the U.S. House last fall.

Montana Public Radio’s Edward O’Brien reached out to members of the state’s delegation to discuss their ambitions this session.

Republican Senator Steve Daines serves on the U.S. Senate Committees on Finance, Energy and Natural Resources, Banking, and Indian Affairs. O’Brien caught up with Daines for a few minutes last week in between votes on the floor of the U.S. Senate

Edward O'Brien Senator, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government could default on its debt as soon as July if Congress is unable to raise the debt limit. Your top priorities for spending reductions — if that's even the answer?

Steve Daines Well, it's clear with $31 trillion plus of debt, reforms to spending in America must be done. We've gone too long without it. Montana has to balance its budget. Most Montanans have to balance their budgets. So does the federal government. We cannot default on our debt. But we also must move forward with reforms put in place to ensure we have more responsible spending processes going forward. The first thing we should do, Ed, is ensure we require a balanced budget, just like the state of Montana has. There's a law in place that requires it. It's not going to get fixed in one year or two years. This is a longer process.

Edward O'Brien A balanced budget amendment, than, is your top priority.

Steve Daines So, I would have a balanced budget amendment. I'd put it in the Constitution. The second thing I would do is I would get the bill passed that I've introduced in every Congress that simply says if you don't balance the budget, members of Congress don't get paid. I think we should put more accountability in the pocketbooks of members of Congress.

Edward O'Brien Senator, CBO has released a sobering projection that combined spending on Medicare and Social Security could double by 2033. There seems to be a growing consensus, from what I can tell, that reductions to these entitlements are off the table. Is that your read as well or not?

Steve Daines Yeah, it is. Look, we've got to protect Medicare, such an important safety net for our seniors. 25% of Montanans rely on the Medicare Advantage for quality, affordable health care. This is critical for seniors and those with disabilities. And the problem we have with inflation now has been record levels over the last year, 40 year levels. That's eating away at retirement savings. And cutting Medicare would just be a cruel thing and unacceptable when you've got inflation at levels that it is today.

Edward O'Brien Well, that's the trick. How do you cure inflation?

Steve Daines Well, I tell you, what you shouldn't do is you cannot continue the reckless spending. I remember when we were having the debate right after President Biden took office about that massive, nearly $2 trillion spending bill. We warned our Senate Democrat colleagues, and it passed on a purely partisan basis. Every Senate Democrat voted yes. Senate Republicans voted no, and it passed because Kamala Harris can break the tie. So there was an example of what not to do. And then second, we've got to get our arms wrapped around energy prices. We've got to have truly a diverse portfolio of energy choices as we go forward. So we just need to have some more balance here. When you start shutting down American energy, when you let this this really green ideology dictate too much of energy policy and lose that balance, it creates inflationary pressures on energy.

Edward O'Brien Senator Daines, China's aggression recently, not only with that spy balloon that we Montanans are so familiar with, but with their actions against the Philippine Coast Guard and their show of force with ships and planes in the Taiwan Strait, it seems to have just ramped up recently. You've hammered the Biden administration's response to these actions as basically limp and ineffective. How, then, should we be responding to these actions while simultaneously not triggering world war three?

Steve Daines Well, Ed, I think it's important that we not overlook the historical significance of this moment. NORAD was founded 65 years ago, back in 1958, under President Eisenhower. For 65 years, the U.S. has never taken down an aerial object using NORAD until the last two weeks. I'm very concerned that the indecision, the lack of transparency from President Biden projects weakness. I remember the first president I got to vote for was Ronald Reagan when I was at Montana State University back in 1980. Reagan believed in peace through strength. The world is safer when America is strong. The best way to prevent world war three is a decisive, strong leader. And President Biden, I think, exhibited weakness on the world stage that emboldens our adversaries. And I think that's why you're seeing the tempo and the cadence now increasing of these incursions into airspace, not only by the Chinese, but also by the Russians over the course of the last week.

Edward O'Brien What does that mean, peace through strength, outside of an aphorism. Literally on the ground, what does that translate to?

Steve Daines It translates to, firstly, a very strong U.S. military being led by a strong commander in chief. Our ICBMs that we have in Montana, those are weapons of mass destruction. Whenever I hear somebody say, 'Thank God they've never been used,' I know what they mean by that. But a better response is they're actually used every day as a deterrent to ensure that a rogue dictator, a communist leader like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping does not do or commit an irrational act, because they are afraid of America's strength. That's kind of basic, I think, in terms of the human condition. When you're strong, you can actually ensure there's peace. When you're weak, it invites these dictators, these leaders here who are bent on authoritarianism, to act.

Edward O'Brien This interview with Senator Steve Daines was recorded Thursday, February 16th. Our limited time together was just about to end. So I asked him one final question about his role as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The NRSC is the official campaign organization for Senate Republicans. Its mission is to support and elect Republican senators and Republican Senate candidates nationwide. Montana's Democratic Senator Jon Tester announced just this week he's running for another six year term. That was not known at the time of this recording. I remarked that if Tester runs again, that would put Senator Daines in the position of working to unseat Tester. I asked if such an adversarial relationship could interfere with their ability to get work accomplished for their constituents.

Steve Daines I just step back and look at these votes we're taking here in Washington, whether they're spending votes, whether we just put our 100th judge on the bench for Joe Biden. I've been voting against most of these judges. The judges' philosophies and backgrounds are out of step with our Montana way of life. So many of these really important votes are coming down to one vote. So I look at voting records — and Jon Tester and I will come together and do what's right for Montana — but we vote very differently on some really important issues. So Montana will play an outsized role in the national map because it just takes two Senate seats to flip the Senate back to the Republicans. Montana, West Virginia, Ohio, all have states where the only statewide Democrat left that's elected is the Democrat senator. That's, of course, Jon Tester of Montana. It's Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. These states have moved increasingly to the right in terms of their voting propensity. When you take that on top of what I think will be a very strong presidential year in 2024, it's going to be an interesting time to watch politics in our state, no doubt. Jon and I still remain friends and we get along, but we vote differently.

Democratic Senator Jon Tester is now serving his second term as chair of the influential Veterans Affairs Committee. MTPR's Edward O’Brien reached out to members of the state’s delegation to discuss their ambitions this session.
We’re taking some time to hear from the state’s congressional delegation. We recently aired conversations with Montana’s U.S. Senators. Today, we’re catching up with Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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