Sparks are flying between one of Montana’s U. S. senators and its sole member of the House of Representatives as Congress leaves work behind and goes into August recess.
The campaigns of Democratic Sen. Jon Tester and Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg, who are squared off in this year’s race for Tester’s seat, have been shooting off multiple releases daily bashing each opponent.
The August recess is scheduled to run from Monday through Sept. 7. Both houses of Congress are taking shots at the other for legislation not passing before the recess.
A fight over farm programs
The latest series between Rehberg and Tester have been over the Farm Bill that is stalled in the House.
After voting Thursday to approve an extension of livestock disaster programs — now expired — for one year, Rehberg called on the House to delay its August recess and stay in session until a complete Farm Bill is passed.
“I’m glad the House was able to take this important step on something that's so important to our producers in Montana, ” Rehberg said in a press release Thursday. “Unfortunately, there’s still work to do, and Montana’s farmers are counting on us to do the right thing. That’s why I’m asking the House to stay in session until we’ve passed a Farm Bill that provides a critical safety net for Montana’s farming and ranching families and a level of certainty for all the small businesses that depend on our state’s agricultural industry.
“I’m ready and willing to come back to Washington, D.C. at any point to get this important work done, ” he added.
But the Tester campaign soon responded, saying Rehberg had voted against a motion to send the bill back to committee to push for work on the five-year Farm Bill minutes before making the call to stay in session.
“Because of Congressman Dennis Rehberg’s failed leadership in Congress, Montana’s farmers and ranchers are stuck with uncertainty during a record drought crisis, ” Tester spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff said in a release Thursday. “Montanans need responsible decisions and predictability, not more of Dennis Rehberg’s empty promises. ”
Sen. Max Baucus and Tester, along with Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N. D., and Tim Johnson, D-S. D., introduced legislation July 12 to extend livestock disaster programs and the Supplemental Revenue Assistance program that also would assist farmers with crops hurt by the drought.
A Baucus spokesperson said this morning that the senator plans to attack the issue of helping ag producers hurt by drought and fires from all angles, continuing to push for assistance from the administration of President Obama, working on his bill and the House disaster assistance bill, and pushing for the long-term solution — passing the five-year Farm Bill.
Sparring on tax codes
Shots from the Rehberg and Tester campaigns have been going back and forth regularly. A recent series was over the estate tax.
The Senate last week voted to extend tax breaks on the first $250,000 income for a couple, $200,000 for an individual. The Senate bill allowed the estate tax to jump from 35 percent to 55 percent, and would impact estates starting at $1 million.
A Baucus-sponsored bill passed Thursday with bipartisan support from the Finance Committee he chairs with provisions including extending breaks on the alternative minimum tax and other tax breaks including for alternative energy development and production, college tuition costs, conservation easements on farms and ranches, businesses hiring new workers and for businesses hiring military veterans.
That bill allowed 20 tax breaks, including a tax credit for ethanol producers, to expire.
Wednesday, Rehberg voted for a bill that passed on party lines to extend Bush-era tax breaks including for income higher than the $250,000 per family benchmark and also extended the 35 percent estate tax rate and excluded the first $5 million from estate taxes.
“After the Senate voted to bring back the full death tax last week, it became critically important to stand up for Montana’s farms and small businesses, ” Rehberg said in a release Thursday. “The best solution would be to make this tax relief permanent and completely eliminate the death tax once and for all, but that’s just not possible with the current U. S. Senate that seems so intent on raising taxes to pay for more government. A one-year patch isn’t ideal, but this bill helps mitigate the tremendous damage done by the Senate’s vote to bring back the death tax on estates worth $1 million. ”
But shortly after the Senate vote last week, Tester joined Sens. Claire McCaskil D-Mo., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., in sponsoring a bill to extend the estate tax breaks.
Republicans immediately criticized Tester for that, saying it was an election-year ploy to act like he supported extending the estate tax relief when he had just voted to end it.
“Unlike Senator Tester, Denny supports killing the death tax once and for all. If Tester really cares about protecting Montanans from a 55 percent death tax, why didn't he add that protection to the Democrats' tax hike bill before voting for it? ” Rehberg campaign spokesman Chris Bond said Thursday. “Instead of standing up for Montanans when he had the chance, Tester went along with his liberal Washington party bosses who want the 55 percent death tax reinstated, and now he's desperately trying to give himself political cover before Election Day. ”
Andrea Helling, spokeswoman for Tester, said this morning that the bills deal with separate issues.
The vote on the income tax break last week was intended to draw a distinction between how the two parties view tax relief for middle class families, she said, adding that, in this particular case, it was impossible to add amendments to the bill while it was being debated on the Senate floor.
Other issues are being dealt with separately, like the Finance Committee bill dealing with business taxes and Tester’s bill dealing with estate taxes, Helling said.
“Jon wants overall tax reform that includes deficit reduction, ” she said.
Dueling tax policies
The issue of how to reform taxes has become an election-year battle, with Republicans calling for massive tax cuts and breaks — the bill Rehberg cited as including the estate tax break also reduces the maximum tax rate to 25 percent — while Democrats, including Obama, are calling for letting tax breaks on income after the first $250,000 for couples to expire.
In that proposal, the first $200,000 or $250,000 would still be taxed at the lower rate, with income above those levels taxed at a higher rate.
Under the Democratic measure passed in the Senate, individuals earning over $200,000 and couples making at least $250,000 would see their top rates on those earnings rise from 33 percent and 35 percent today to 36 percent and 39.6 percent in January.
That increase would affect 2.5 million households nationwide, or 2 percent of all 140.5 million tax returns, according to 2009 Internal Revenue Service statistics.
The White House said that if the tax cuts were not continued, middle class families would face average tax increases next year of $1,600. It also said that the GOP bill would grant tax reductions averaging $160,000 to households where income exceeds $1 million annually.
The Rehberg campaign has characterized Tester’s support of the Senate proposal as a massive tax hike on Montana’s farmers, ranchers, small business owners and middle-class families.
Post office issues
Another sticking point in the campaign is the failure of the House to take up a Senate-passed reform of the Postal Service.
In the midst of planned closures of thousands of rural post offices, Baucus and Tester helped craft a bill that would have prevented many closures, given the Postal Service an infusion of cash and removed a requirement passed in 2006 that the Postal Service prepay retirement benefits for future retirees.
Wednesday, the Postal Service defaulted on a $5.5 billion payment on those retirement benefits.
“This default puts Montana post offices in an even tougher spot for no good reason, ” Baucus said in a release Wednesday. “In the Senate, both sides of the aisle came together to pass a commonsense plan months ago — and the House needs to put our bipartisan plan into action to protect Montana jobs and get the postal service back on the road to financial stability. ”
Tester also went on the attack.
“Today’s default was entirely avoidable, ” he said in a release Wednesday. “Had the House of Representatives passed our bipartisan Postal Reform Bill, the Postal Service would be on more stable financial footing. ”
The Havre Daily News asked Rehberg this week whether he supports the Senate postal reform bill.
“For months, I’ve heard from Montanans about postal reform and I’ve conveyed that message to House leaders in both parties, ” he replied. “I’m going to continue pressing House leadership to take action before it’s too late. ”
An Olympic battle
And the attacks have risen to an Olympic level.
Tester’s campaign has issued a series of press releases lampooning Rehberg’s career as a competitive gymnast and gymnastics teacher titled “The Rehberg Olympics, ” with regular releases sent out comparing votes and comments Rehberg has made to a gymnast’s flips, turns and somersaults — similar to the Rehberg campaign’s “A Tale of Two Testers” press release series.
But the Montana Republican Party called foul on the latest Tester campaign.
Montana GOP Chair Will Deschamps of Missoula Thursday sent a letter to the International Olympic Committee saying Tester was illegally using the trademarked Olympic rings symbol in his advertisements.
“The juvenile exploits of Senator Tester demean the very spirit of the Olympic Games, which seek to foster cooperation and goodwill that transcends political, cultural and geographic boundaries, ” Deschamps wrote.