MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA House Republicans said they may have to skip the stalled social services budget altogether and leave the issue to the Senate to fix. A GOP leader said obstructionist House Democrats would be to blame for the unusual budget move, while Democrats said an unraveling Republican budget strategy is being exposed. The bitterly divided House, which Republicans control by a 51-49 margin with the help of a Constitution Party member, has been at a stalemate over the Department of Health and Human Services budget since last week. Republican leaders have tried to woo Democrats by putting more money into the DPHHS budget. They then courted the key vote of Constitution Party Rep. Rick Jore with an amendment to strip the DPHHS budget to basically zero only to see fellow Republicans balk at the plan. House Majority Leader Michael Lange, R-Billings, said they will now offer the budget to Democrats one last time on Wednesday funded at exactly the original request of Gov. Brian Schweitzer. A committee made those adjustments to the bill Tuesday. But Lange, rebuffed in negotiations with Democratic leaders, said he expects the offer will fail and he will no longer pursue plans to move a House DPHHS budget. It would be the first time observers can recall the House, which must initiate spending plans based on the governor’s requests, simply skipped a section of the budget. It would mean the Senate, controlled by Democrats, could draft nearly any DPHHS budget they desired from scratch. House Minority Whip Art Noonan, Dbutte, said the Republican budget strategy is collapsing. He said the primary reason for the new process to give the House more sway in negotiations seems lost now that the Senate could be given a blank check for one of the biggest pieces of the budget. “All of the rationales they said going into this are gone,” Noonan said. Lange said he has been told it would be legal for Senate Democrats to take the DPHHS budget and write it into another GOP budget bill that has already cleared the House and been sent to the Senate. Senate President Mike Cooney, Dhelena, said he is not yet certain and is waiting to see what happens. He has scheduled the other portions of the budget for Senate hearings starting Friday, though. Partisan tensions over the budget have steadily increased ever since Republicans unceremoniously killed the governor’s budget proposal. The move raised the ire of Democrats who have since staunchly opposed any Republican budget plans, and have withheld their votes in an effort to revive the consolidated Schweitzer budget. “We will not be blackmailed by anybody,” Lange said. “They want it their way, at their level, in a bill of their choosing. They are not the majority.” Lange said he still believes his strategy to split the budget into many pieces was a good move. Even though House Republicans might not endorse a DPHHS budget, he says they left an imprint on the rest of the state spending plans. “It was a great strategy,” he said. He said it shows “the monolithic Democrats” are locked in unison in an effort to “protect the process for the agencies, for the governor and for increased spending.” House Republicans, Lange said, have been not been able to move a complete budget only because they have to rely on Jore for a clear majority. “Here’s my message to the voters: elect three or four more Republicans and we’ll take care of that,” Lange said. He said the objections of House Democrats have made it certain they will be left out of budget discussions. Lange said Republican leaders expect to instead negotiate the final spending package with Senate President Mike Cooney and Schweitzer. “I just feel like House Democrats are rudderless, I really believe that,” Lange said. The DPHHS budget is House Bill 808.