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Rosendale goes viral and Republicans set their sights on abortion & Medicaid

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Rep. Rosendale refuses a call from Trump. State Sen. Regier withdraws a resolution Native Americans found insulting. Rep. Zinke warns of threats to cowboys. And more Montanans may lose Medicaid funding.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin.

Sally Mauk Rob, Congressman Matt Rosendale's moment in the national spotlight has been extended by a viral photograph of Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene trying to get him to take a phone call from Donald Trump. And this happened during the vote to elect Kevin McCarthy Speaker of the House, which was something Rosendale didn't want to do. In an interview this week on the radio show Montana Talks, hosted by Aaron Flint, here's how Rosendale explained why he refused to take the call from Trump.

"You are not supposed to be speaking on a telephone on the floor. It is a fineable offense, and I was steadfast in my representation of Montana and felt it was completely out of line for someone to call the president without my consent and to try to insert me into a conversation while I was involved in a historic, rapidly changing vote."

Sally Mauk And as Aaron then pointed out, Rob, there were no House rules in effect at that time. So it sounds like, to me anyway, that Congressman Rosendale is looking for some cover for why he didn't take the call from Trump.

Rob Saldin Yeah, right, Sally. I mean, you know, I guess he's got to say something. He certainly doesn't want to get crosswise with Trump, but it's awfully hard not to chuckle at that interview. You know, for one thing, prior to that clip that you just played, Rosendale was explaining that he finally backed down on the speaker vote in the sense that he started voting present as opposed to voting for someone else. That, he did that because he didn't want Congress and the institution to break down. Right? As though he's an institutionalist, deeply concerned with the health and well-being of the House of Representatives. And that's just a pretty audacious thing to say after the theatrics he was engaged in last week.

And then you have that pearl clutching clip about the indecency of phones on the House floor and breaking rules. You know, that's pretty rich, too. And as you note, Sally, you know, Aaron explains how that, you know, actually at the time wasn't against the House rules and and Rosendale comes back at them after that about how it's a breach of common courtesy and professionalism. Right? And, you know, of all the things to be scandalized by and on the anniversary of January 6th, no less.

But I tell you what, Sally, I do think that all of that was great for Rosendale in a political sense. It has made him a star on a national level. No one knew who Rosendale was a couple of weeks ago. Now everyone's talking about him. And, while he's gotten a lot of grief for it in some quarters, this is good stuff for the folks he wants to appeal to.

Sally Mauk Well, speaking of grief, what is the fallout for Congressman Rosendale with House leadership and how is that going to affect how he does his job?

Rob Saldin Well, it's not going to help him when you go out of your way to humiliate your party leader. Right? He refused to support McCarthy, even at the very end, when most of the other holdouts had thrown in the towel and it was obvious McCarthy had enough votes. But it's also not at all clear that Rosendale cares about that stuff, about his committee assignments or about governing. Right? He's not putting himself in a position, at least, to deliver for his constituents, at least in the traditional way. Because that does require at least having a decent working relationship with the party leaders. You know, to me, what Rosendale seems to care much more about than any of that, and what he is genuinely delivering a lot of is red meat culture war outrage, and there's a big hungry audience for that. I think that comes naturally to him. That's been a prominent part of his persona for as long as I can remember. And again, it's also not necessarily a miscalculation or a mistake on his part. It may well be the case that his voters want exactly what he is offering from their member of Congress.

Sally Mauk Well, Holly, we talked last week about a resolution drafted by Senator Keith Regier that called for the abolition of Indian reservations. And there was huge criticism and blowback from Native Americans, and others, and now Regier has withdrawn the resolution, saying people had misunderstood his intention. I think people understood it all too well.

Holly Michels Yeah, I, this is something that kind of took up a lot of attention during the first week of the session and like we talked about before, resolutions can serve as a message from the Legislature. This one would have asked Congress to study alternatives to reservations. Since resolutions don't enact law, you know, they don't have a lot of meaning there, but they are really more about the messages they send. And this one really did not hit well with the Native caucus in the Legislature or with Native communities around the state.

Regier told the Missoulian that every session he has lots of bills drafted, and they don't always come to fruition. And he said this is one he decided not to bring after talking to the constituents he said requested he bring it.

He also said he had a productive conversation with State Senator Shane Morigeau, who was very vocal in public in explaining why he and the caucus were frustrated to see that this was drafted outside of the Native caucus.

The Missoulian also reported that tribes were frustrated and angered by the proposal. The Fort Belknap Indian Community said it included errors. The Little Shell said they were really disturbed by it and that it ignored the law.

Regier told the Missoulian that the resolution was, "certainly interpreted by some of the press and public in a way that wasn't intended." But, in the story he didn't really expand on how it was supposed to be intended. And, you know, obviously we can't say what would have happened if this resolution didn't get the type of coverage it got from several media outlets. But it is fair to say there was reactions to the resolution following the coverage that were pretty swift and pretty strong.

Sally Mauk Rob, Congressman Ryan Zinke made national news this week with a speech he had on the House floor in support of a new committee to investigate, "the weaponization of the federal government." Here's what Zinke said.

"Dark money groups, funded by liberal billionaires and foreign investors, funnel money to shell organizations and repeatedly attempt to destroy the American West. In many cases, they want to wipe out the American cowboy completely, remove public access to our lands, and turn Montana into a national park. They want to control our land and our lifestyle."

Sally Mauk Whew, Rob, the deep state really has it in for Montana.

Rob Saldin You know, Sally, it struck me as something of an attempt to keep up with Rosendale. These guys are, after all, competing against each other. I think they both want to be the party's nominee for the Senate race next year against Tester. And like I said earlier, that whole speaker saga really raised Rosendale's profile, it made him a star. Zinke has got to try to keep pace.

To my eye, that stuff never comes quite as naturally to Zinke as it does to Rosendale. It doesn't come off as authentic in the way that I think it does for Rosendale. You know, you kind of get the impression that if you give Rosendale truth serum, he'd say all the same stuff. I'm just not so sure about Zinke. Remember, Zinke used to have a reputation as a moderate. He certainly had that reputation when he was in the Legislature, and that was the dynamic back in 2014, when these two guys ran against each other in the primary for the at large House seat. You know, Rosendale was the strident conservative ideologue. Zinke was the moderate guy in the middle who managed to split the conservative vote and get the nomination that way. Now, that was a long time ago, of course, and it long predated his stint in Trump's cabinet at Interior, where some of these themes were there in Zinke's rhetoric.

Sally Mauk Well, it's definitely, I think Rob, a preview of the 2024 Republican primary in the Senate race, no doubt.

Rob Saldin Yeah, I think that campaign is off and running.

Sally Mauk Holly, there are several proposals to shrink the number of Montanans currently eligible for Medicaid. In part because some federal funding is set to expire.

Holly Michels Yeah. So the first piece of what we're really looking at right now with Medicaid is the end of continuous eligibility for most adults covered by that program. So what's going on is during COVID, the federal government told states they needed to give people that continuous eligibility, meaning if they were qualified for the program once, they would remain so for 12 months, even if their income fluctuated. The idea there was to avoid churn, which is when people come on and off the program because of income changes month to month, because the government thought it was important people have access to health care in a pandemic. And the state has, in legislative hearings we've heard recently, equated this to a program where there's an open door to enter, but there's no way to exit. So enrollment on Medicaid has gone way up during the pandemic. What's not totally clear is how much of that increase is tied to the continuous eligibility change, or just regular changes within the program, because the state hasn't been checking those qualifications.

Important to note here, the state also got a higher reimbursement rate from the federal government during the enrollment, but that will end, as you said. And the state's cost still did go up because they were just covering more people. So starting April 1st, the state's going to start the process of redetermination. This was under a federal provision in the Omnibus bill, and that's when they'll go in and they'll recheck the qualifications for everybody covered to make sure they're still qualified. And lawmakers right now are figuring out, really how to budget for that. And it's a big challenge because we don't really know what that's going to look like when we're done.

The health department's working with partners to try to inform as many people as possible about this process, because there's fear that people who maybe should be keeping coverage -- would still be qualified -- might lose it because they might miss communications from the health department. They'd be looking to verify income information, that kind of thing.

So, really important for people covered under Medicaid to make sure your address is updated with the state health department. And the department said they're going to start this process with people they suspect are no longer qualified, to remove them as quickly as possible. That's not clear how they're going to know who's in that group, but then they're going to move to those who they think are probably still qualified, you know, seniors, people whose incomes really don't change all that much.

Sally Mauk The Gianforte administration, Holly, also wants to tighten rules for women seeking Medicaid funding for an abortion.

Holly Michels Yep. So, right before Christmas, the state health department under Gianforte put out this proposed rule. It would require pre-authorization for abortion care for anyone on Medicaid. It would also tighten up how providers can show that an abortion is medically necessary, and it would limit the types of providers who can perform abortions.

The department did a study last year, the Legislature funded, where they looked at the justifications provided by doctors showing that abortions were medically necessary for Medicaid to pay. And they said that they weren't seeing the type of proof they wanted to show procedures were medically necessary. So that's where this is coming from.

The federal Hyde Amendment stops federal dollars from paying for abortion care. But Montana has a court ruling saying the state must pay for medically necessary, therapeutic abortions.

The department held a hearing about this proposed rule recently, and we heard from more than two dozen doctors, advocates, women who've had abortions covered by Medicaid speaking against the proposed rule. They said it would put woman at risk of physical and mental harm by having to wait for pre-authorization, or create confusion about what qualifies as medically necessary, and that it would have review boards making this final determination, not something that would happen between a doctor and a patient. We also heard from advanced nurse providers that there's not evidence showing the abortion care they provide is any less safe than doctors'.

There was just one supporter of this rule change, and that was someone from the Montana Family Foundation, which is a group pretty well-known for their opposition to abortion. But even given that ratio of one to more than two dozen, we have seen in the past, you know, lots of opponents come in and speak against rules and the department will implement them anyway. I think, I wouldn't be surprised to see that work out to be the case here.

We did hear the ACLU of Montana give a nod to a possible lawsuit, not saying it would come from them, but that there was that possibility if this rule was implemented. So we'll have to wait and see what happens there. And people still can comment on this rule until January 20th and they can go to the department's website to find out how.

Sally Mauk Political pace is picking up, we'll try to keep up. Holly and Rob, thanks. Talk to you next week.

Rob Saldin Thanks Sally.

Holly Michels Thank you Sally.

Capitol Talk is MTPR's weekly legislative news and analysis program. MTPR's Sally Mauk is joined by Lee Newspapers State Bureau Chief Holly Michels and UM Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin. Tune in during the legislative session online Friday afternoons and on-air Saturdays at 9:44 a.m. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

With the 2022 election over, Montana Republicans hold power not seen in the state Capitol in nearly a century. Lawmakers arrive in Helena on Jan. 2 to begin a new session. Before then, here's a recap of what's happened and a look forward at what to expect.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.