For the better part of the past decade, Montana Republicans have enjoyed comfortable majorities in the state Legislature. Despite those majorities (or maybe because of them), GOP caucuses in the House and Senate have spent much of the past 10 years engaged in a bitter, and oftentimes very public, intra-party feud.
The fratricide started with the ugly 2007 session, which ended that April with lawmakers failing to pass a state budget, the only task the state constitution requires of them.
Prior to the start of the May 2007 special session to finish the budget work, a handful of self-described “solutions-oriented” Republicans—led by a little-known sophomore representative from Conrad named Llew Jones—met with then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s staff at a cabin near Helena, where they hammered out a budget compromise.
Schweitzer, with the help of the so-called Log Cabin Republicans, secured the votes the governor needed in the Republican-controlled House to pass his budget deal, and only then did he call legislators to return to the capitol. The outcome of the 2007 special session was all but certain before it even started.
When the dust settled after that five-day special session, Schweitzer claimed victory with most of his major budget proposals intact, and many Republicans left Helena bitter, licking their wounds and looking inward for a solution to their problem on the second floor.
Some Republicans decided the solution was to purge their party of fellow Republicans who were willing to negotiate with the Democrat upstairs, and over the course of the next 10 years a rift in the Montana GOP grew wide and deep as those on the hard-right pursued conservative purity in the Legislature.
Today, in the wake of this year’s special session to plug a $227 million hole in the state budget, there are now signs that the long-standing divide in the Montana GOP may be on the mend. Term limits are about to force many of the current crop of GOP leaders out of office, so this newfound spirit of cooperation may be tenuous. But for now, Republican legislators who were once staunch policy and electoral rivals appear to have laid down their arms.
A noteworthy piece of evidence of this fragile truce lies in the simple fact that majority Republicans in the House and Senate agreed with each other enough to pass a series of measures to address the state’s budget crisis without forcing Gov. Steve Bullock to make draconian cuts to state government programs and agencies. And they did it in two days.