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Cutting the nation's debt takes priority over funding government programs, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg told members of the Missoula City Club on Thursday.

"I am dwelling on spending because I don't believe you increase taxes during a recession," Rehberg said, a theme he'd repeat several more times during the luncheon. He also wanted to see less government regulation of business and industry so those employers could create more jobs.

The Republican's answers didn't sit well with many of the 110 people gathered at the Holiday Inn Downtown at the Park. Several criticized him for cutting funding for women's health care, community development block grants and college education while not turning equal attention to oil company subsidies and taxes on the rich.

"Our problem is not that we're spending too little, but that we're spending too much," he said. As examples, he claimed he'd recently identified between 40 and 60 programs in the U.S. Department of Education that were "doing exactly the same thing." He also claimed that family planning services were losing billions of dollars by duplication between Medicaid and Title X services.

Missoula Planned Parenthood volunteer coordinator Tannis Hargrove, who asked about the family planning spending, disputed Rehberg's duplication claim. She said Title X services were not available to Montanans eligible for Medicaid, and that Medicaid eligibility was too strict to allow that kind of double-dipping.

Missoula attorney Richard Buley asked why Rehberg was not looking at taxes on the rich similar to what they paid under President Ronald Reagan. Rehberg replied the nation's economy had been rocked by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina, and that tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 were necessary to keep it afloat.

"I'm glad we had the tax relief that created the opportunity that helped us pay for and stabilize the economy during that tough time," Rehberg said. He added that the federal government should take the blame in the collapse of the housing bubble.

"Is it the banker's fault, the homebuilder's fault, the Realtor's fault, the purchaser's fault?" he asked. "We have a tendency to ignore the government's action that helped create the meltdown in the financial market (by promoting the idea that) everybody deserved an opportunity to be in a house, even if you can't afford it. You can't blame the banker, the homebuilder and the Realtor, when the government is encouraging the action that created the meltdown that occurred."

While he pledged support for the federal Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, Rehberg said the regulations from those laws prevented them from solving issues.

"I don't want to see any individual have poisoning from our environment," he said. "But at the same time, I have to work with the industries that are providing our opportunities to sit here with the lights on or have a heated home or an air-conditioned home."

In response to a question about regulation of mercury pollution, Rehberg said he wasn't working on any specific legislation, but that he preferred a legislative solution over a regulatory one. He said excessive regulations were keeping the petroleum industry from modernizing its gasoline infrastructure, which was keeping consumer gas prices high.

Rehberg said the government should do more to encourage fossil fuel production as a way to lower the price of gas at the pump. He also criticized opponents of natural gas exploration.

"The same people that continue to try and keep us from having offshore drilling beyond the curvature of the Northeast coast are the same ones that are the first ones to come in and want low- income energy assistance to pay for their heating fuel." Rehberg said. "They're part of the problem, but not part of the solution."

The 2010 national election was proof that the nation wanted the Republican Party to have a seat at the budget table, Rehberg said. And he remained committed to carrying on its small-government principles.

"The government doesn't create jobs," he said. "Small businesses do. People with creative ideas do. I think we are better having an efficient, effective, reasonable-sized government as opposed to government being the solution."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at


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