State delegation touts progress

Great Falls Tribune

by Faith Bremner

farmers will have a stronger safety net next year, disabled veterans will have
an easier time getting to the doctor, and students will see lower interest
rates on their college loans, thanks to efforts by the state's congressional
delegation this year.

Montana's senior
senator, Democrat Max Baucus, said he's especially proud of his effort to get a
new permanent disaster aid program in the farm bill so farmers don't have to
wait a year or two for Congress to get around to helping them. He also cited
his work in inserting provisions to improve support payments for wheat and
barley and to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture from closing Farm Service
Agency offices.

said his biggest disappointment was President Bush's veto of an expansion of
the state-federal Children's Health Insurance Program. Baucus, chairman of the
Senate Finance Committee, and Iowa Republican Sen. Charles Grassley, the committee's
ranking member, put the measure together and lobbied hard for it.

said he doubts Bush will follow through on a threat to veto the farm bill. He
predicted Republicans will be less inclined to support Bush's agenda as the
president moves closer to the end of his term and the Republican presidential
nominee moves to center stage.

veto) would not be very smart," Baucus said. "Frankly, a lot of
people around the country would be very upset if that were to happen. It might
affect some congressional races, too."

Montana's freshman
senator, Democrat Jon Tester, said his top accomplishments include getting
legislation through that boosts travel reimbursement rates for the nation's
disabled veterans from 11 cents a mile to 28.5 cents per mile. The proposal
surfaced as Tester held 10 meetings with veterans across the state.

also is proud of having supported a higher-education bill that increased the
maximum Pell Grant award for the neediest college students, cut the interest
rate on subsidized student loans, capped the amount low-income borrowers must
pay back each month, and created a debt-forgiveness program for many public
service employees.

higher-education bill that I campaigned on, I couldn't have written it any
better," Tester said. "That was a great piece of legislation."

Rep. Dennis Rehberg, the only member of the Montana delegation to sit on the
Appropriations Committee, said his biggest accomplishment this year was
bringing money home to the state. Working with Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a
Democrat, Rehberg was able to insert a provision in the fiscal 2008 spending
bill that directs the Homeland Security Department to deploy high-tech security
equipment, such as electronic sensors and aerial drones, along the northern and
southern borders.

said he wanted to make sure not all the border security money was spent along
the U.S.-Mexico border, where the priorities are building fences and jail cells
and stopping smugglers who tunnel under the border.

are some things that are specific to places like Montana, where you have a large geographical
area but not a lot of population," Rehberg said. "Technology plays a
more important role. You're not going to see a lot of tunneling between Montana and Canada. We have entirely different

bickering, however, cast a shadow over lawmakers' successes. It's also blamed
for lawmakers' declining public image. Only 22 percent of Americans surveyed by
a Gallup Poll in December approved of the job Congress is doing. That's down
four percentage points from when voters transferred control to Democrats a year

leaders blame Republicans for blocking legislation to expand the health
insurance program for lower-income children, repeal tax breaks for oil companies
to pay for tax incentives for renewable energy, and set a timeline for troop
withdrawals from Iraq.
Republicans blame Democrats for not seeking bipartisan agreements before taking
controversial measures to the floor.

Senate this year held 62 votes to cut off debate, known as cloture votes, the
highest number ever recorded in a two-year congressional session, according to
the Senate clerk's office. Thirty-one times, the majority failed to muster the
60 votes needed to proceed with the bill. One of those blocked measures was the
farm bill, which won the unanimous support of the Senate agriculture committee.

said the arguments Republican leaders make in defending the blocking maneuvers
aren't convincing, especially when it comes to the farm bill. The bill
ultimately moved forward after a month's delay, but now faces Bush's veto

farm bill) was built by people from every corner of the country, and it was
filibustered," Tester said. "On some of (their) arguments, I can say,
'Yeah, you're right, you have every right in the world and probably should
filibuster.' But not on as many (bills) as they have."

was one of 15 Democrats who joined Republicans in blocking a measure to
overhaul immigration policies.

blames the Democratic leaders of the House for the partisan wrangling there.

they settle down and realize that all they're doing is continuing to further
polarize a polarized country, I'm hoping that we can again find the areas of
consensus, the things that Republicans, Democrats and independents alike can
agree to and get some of those off the plate," Rehberg said.