HELENA — Senate Republicans lost votes Tuesday from within their ranks for their spending plan — handing a setback to leaders trying to quickly get the budget to Gov. Brian Schweitzer in order to advance negotiations.
Three conservative Republicans joined all Democrats on Tuesday in voting against the spending plan in a crucial final Senate vote, where it stalled on a 25-25 deadlock.
Senate Republican leaders say they will bring the measure up again, likely on Wednesday. Passing a budget is the only piece of business the Legislature is constitutionally required to do in the 90 days allotted. There are nine legislative days remaining.
"I was surprised," said Senate President Jim Peterson, R-Buffalo. "In the end I hope it will pass."
Peterson said he expects the measure will get support from at least one Republican, giving the proposal the votes it needs to go to the governor's desk.
"I am optimistic we will get it worked out," Peterson said.
The Democratic governor has threatened to veto it, or perhaps return a rewritten spending plan to lawmakers for them to consider.
Sen. Art Wittich of Bozeman surprised Republican leaders by switching his vote from a day earlier and stalling their plans to give Schweitzer a budget as soon as Wednesday.
Wittich said he has no plans to switch his vote back in favor of the spending plan when it is brought back up. The Bozeman attorney said he didn't like the way House and Senate negotiators added money back into the spending plan.
The Republican budget plan cuts spending of state tax money about $130 million. The biggest sticking point so far with Schwietzer appears to be a Republican decision to forgo almost $100 million in federal funds primarily for social programs such as food stamps and assistance for the elderly.
But a negotiating committee hashing out House and Senate differences did add some money back in to restore overtime money for prison and social workers, and retain an energy promotion division favored by the administration. It also agreed to take about $35 million in federal money to help hospitals and local clinics transition to electronic medical records.
"I think we are going in the wrong direction. I think we should be taking money out of the budget, not putting it into the budget," Wittich said.
Another Republican voting no, Sen. Ed Walker of Billings, said he will not change his vote when it returns. The other no vote, Sen. Greg Hinkle of Thomson Falls, would not tell reporters Tuesday what he intends to do.
Democrats have been steadfastly opposed to a spending plan they argue unnecessarily cuts essential programs. The legislative minority has instead backed Schweitzer's original spending plan.
Only once, in 2007, has the Legislature failed in its sole constitutional duty to pass a budget. That time the governor called the lawmakers back into a special session to pass the budget he wanted.