The crucial Senate race in Montana between Sen. Jon Tester (D) and Rep. Denny Rehberg (R) is approaching a turning point that could determine control of the upper chamber next year.
Rehberg sits on the House Appropriations Committee and heads the powerful subcommittee in charge of job training, health and education spending. Rehberg said this week he is about to release a delayed 2013 bill with serious cuts.
To move the bill through the House, however, it will have to contain cuts to social programs that could be unpopular in Montana.
Rehberg, in addition, is campaigning as a centrist who bucked his party on spending cuts, in a race that by late June was statistically tied, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll.
The stakes are high. The fight for majority in the Senate after November is very close, with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) putting the chances at even. Races in Montana, Nevada, Massachusetts, Florida and Missouri are especially close.
Democrats are champing at the bit and say that the bill has been left for last to ensure there is too little time for it to come up before the full House. In that way Rehberg won’t have to be seen managing it on the House floor, House aides said.
“It’s embarrassing for them. We know that that bill will be devastating to children,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who sits on Rehberg’s panel. “It has been delayed several times.”
The Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill is the last of the 12 annual spending bills to be moved by House appropriators. The delay is no accident, Republicans conceded.
“This is a difficult bill to do, especially in this atmosphere,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) said.
Rogers, who represents an impoverished district, was known for championing rural health and education projects before the deficit crunch turned the mood in Congress toward austerity.
To meet the terms of the House-passed budget, the bill will need to cut spending by more than $8 billion. It will also likely contain anti-abortion riders that could cause a political firestorm.
While Pell Grants might not be cut as much as in past GOP efforts, special education, rural health and medical research could all take a hit, aides said.
Last year, the labor, health and education subcommittee that Rehberg chairs never held a markup.
Instead, a proposed bill was quietly released on a website. Aides said that Rehberg could not find enough cuts to satisfy conservative Reps. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
This year, Lummis has indicated she is more open to compromise, aides said, making a markup likely.
The event could tip the tight race Tester's way.
Tester’s campaign claims it did Rehberg real damage to vote for spending cuts in the House continuing resolution of April 2011.
This week, the Tester campaign released a video of a cancer survivor pointing out that Rehberg voted to cut breast cancer research and community health centers. Tester's camp says it will hit the candidate whether he produces a bill or not.
“Congressman Dennis Rehberg gutted Head Start, Job Corps, Pell Grants, community health clinics, and he voted to disrupt Medicare services for 26,000 Montanans,” Tester campaign spokesman Aaron Murphy said this week. “If the congressman delays his bill, he's once again putting his own long political career ahead of Montana.”
Rehberg's campaign says that when you dig into last year's proposed bill you find that important priorities like cancer research, Head Start and after-school programs are protected.
"Denny has earned a great deal of praise in Montana and nationally for making health and education a top priority." Chris Bond, a Rehberg spokesman, said. "Tester's election-year attacks are ironic given that Senate Democrats just announced they are not taking up a single appropriations bill before the November elections."
Rehberg has sought to distance himself from the Washington GOP. He voted against the House budget over its cuts to Medicare.
In an advertisement last month he highlighted his "no" vote.
“Rehberg refuses to toe the party line,” the commercial states.
Rehberg told The Hill that the delay has not been of his own making and has been due in part to a need to wait until the Supreme Court ruled on President Obama’s healthcare reform law. His bill is set to contain elements defunding the implementation of “ObamaCare.”
“I have been waiting to hear from the front office,” he said.
Rehberg was asked to respond to the idea that the bill has been delayed because he does not want to face cuts to social programs.
“That is their opinion. I don’t have an opinion,” he said before hurrying away.
As an anti-health reform measure, the bill would seem a natural to be brought to the floor ahead of the election. Rehberg’s campaign this week has been hitting Tester hard for his vote in favor of health reform, which remains highly unpopular.
But it appears he won’t be seen leading the charge to defund it through appropriations.
Although the House has approved six spending bills, sources said that leaders intend to keep the labor bill off the radar. They now plan only to bring the defense appropriations bills to the floor before the November elections, sources said.
Republicans are blaming Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) for the inability of the House to complete the full set of bills. Reid announced this week that the Senate will not vote on any of its bills before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1.
“Leader Reid’s comments that he has no intention of moving any appropriations bills this year will certainly make it more difficult for us here in the House, but we are committed to working to complete as many appropriations bills as possible given the schedule,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) spokeswoman Laena Fallon said.
— This story was updated at 11:27 a.m.