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Steve Daines

Steve Daines

Halfway between leaving the U.S. House of Representatives and joining the Senate, Steve Daines hopes to revive a lot of unfinished business in the coming 114th session of Congress.

Top on his list during a swing through Missoula on Thursday was forest management reform.

Daines supported a House bill by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., that would have mandated a national level of trees cut per year, and Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., had a similar bill that was based on the number of acres logged annually.

Both bills expired when Congress ended its 113th session last week.

“I’m not convinced either method is the best way to do it,” Daines said. “These are all means to get to an end. The bottom line is to increase the timber harvest.”

Daines sent a letter to timber workers, conservationists, sportsmen and others asking for input on how best to manage Montana’s forests. He put a Jan. 15 deadline on the responses.

Daines succeeds appointed Democratic Sen. John Walsh after defeating Amanda Curtis in the November election. He enters as the 94th ranked member. His one two-year term in the House gave him higher initial rank than Walsh or Sens. Jon Tester or Conrad Burns on their arrivals – all three landed as No. 100 out of 100. 

One thing high on his list would be changing the way U.S. Forest Service timber projects get challenged in court, Daines said. He expressed interest in requiring those who sue the agency to post a bond covering the government’s cost if they lose, or limiting what they can recover in legal fees through the Equal Access to Justice Act.

“I hope to have the Senate and House work more collaboratively, but I understand you must be more bipartisan in the Senate,” Daines said. “Still, I think there’s a strong appetite for legislative reform.”

Daines said he hopes to see the inner workings of those changes from his seat on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Both he and Tester, a Democrat and Montana's senior senator, will serve on that committee.

“It’s rare to have freshmen on the Appropriations Committee,” Daines said. “But Leader (Mitch) McConnell reached out to me, and there will be some other freshmen there, too. And to have two Montanans there – that’s a good thing.”

As the Senate’s incoming Republican majority leader, McConnell will gather his caucus in the Capitol’s Mike Mansfield Room – named for Montana’s most famous statesman.

Daines said he believed McConnell intends to pursue a different style of management compared to outgoing Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, which could win more bipartisan support.

“He’s going to open up the amendment process,” Daines said of McConnell’s strategy. “That’s messy, but it’s the way the Senate is supposed to operate.”

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In addition to producing a regular budget instead of continuing resolutions, Daines said he expected the Senate to dig into the administration’s business regulation style.

One idea developed in the House he wanted to see the Senate carry forward would require congressional approval for any administration regulation that had more than a $100 million impact.

He also predicted some changes to the Affordable Care Act, including possible repeal of the medical device tax and changing the threshold for covered employees from 30 hours a week to 40 hours.

But he cast doubt on the chances of any major tax reform clearing Congress, saying the issue brings out too many special interests for a comprehensive package to hold together.

Daines does expect quick decisions on federal approval of the Keystone XL pipeline that would ferry Canadian oil across the United States to Southern refineries.

And he said the Secure Rural Schools program that many Montana county governments depend on should be reauthorized in the early months of 2015.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.