Earlier this spring, Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines drew loud applause from a crowd of union activists — traditionally a Democratic constituency — with his stinging attack of U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
"You talk to our unions back in Montana, they sometimes wonder if [EPA] shouldn’t stand for the Employment Prevention Agency," Daines told the North America’s Building Trades Union at its Washington, D.C., convention.
He warned that thousands of "good-paying union" jobs would disappear because of the administration’s efforts to limit carbon emissions from power plants.
Only a few days later, Daines was speaking out on the other side of the fight over the scope of federal environmental protections.
In a speech on the Senate floor, he came out strongly in favor of permanently reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal effort to preserve lands that is deeply unpopular with many conservatives.
Daines said keeping the fund alive would help ensure the "Montana way of life" by providing residents’ access to public areas. Senate leaders ultimately included the provision in broad energy legislation, S. 2012.
Daines says his attempts to balance competing interests reflect his state’s political currents. He likes to say they are a "little bit John Denver and little bit Merle Haggard."
And with plum assignments on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources and Appropriations committees, the freshman senator is trying to appeal to both his state’s energy producers and conservationists.
"Most Montanans are in the middle of the spectrum that says we want to preserve and protect the environment and want to continue to responsibly develop our resources so we can continue to live in a state that we love," Daines said in a recent interview in his Senate office.
The Hart Senate Office Building room is filled with pictures of Daines and family at Montana’s Yellowstone and Glacier national parks.
Daines said he did not seek out a seat on Appropriations, a slot rarely given to freshman lawmakers. But he has used a spot on the panel’s Interior and Environment Subcommittee, which controls EPA funding, to raise concerns over the CPP for a state that ranks first in the nation in recoverable coal deposits.
During a recent hearing, Daines leaned forward in his chair and rattled off his concerns with the CPP to the session’s main witness, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy.
He pushed McCarthy on whether CPP would help to reduce global warming. Daines criticized her when she said it could not be easily quantified.
"The thing is, it is important that we seek to quantify it because we have quantified the tremendous impact on people," said Daines, who then ticked off statistics he regularly cites to make the case against the landmark rule.
The Republican says the rule would cost Montana 7,000 energy jobs overall, cost $1.5 billion annually and lead to a double-digit increase in state utility rates. EPA and its defenders have denied such an impact.
Daines paints his views as a "common-sense" approach to energy and environment issues that avoids an "us versus them" mindset. He repeatedly stresses that most people in Montana want to protect the environment, but says that with an economy that ranks 49th in the nation, Montana can’t afford to lose any jobs.
Daines does not expect Senate Republicans to try to block CPP funding in the annual spending bill, noting the issue is tied up in the courts. Instead, he says Congress should focus on finding funding and loosening regulations to promote hydraulic fracturing and technology to burn coal cleaner.
Daines has become one of the most outspoken supporters of coal on Capitol Hill — from mining to export proposals in the Pacific Northwest. He often cites the Crow Nation’s reliance on the fuel.
Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) called Daines "a very constructive legislator; he’s in the camp of ‘Let’s meet with our party and find a solution.’"
Aside from the LWCF reauthorization, she said, he has helped forge provisions on forestry and non-coal mining that made it into the Senate energy bill.
Daines’ most notable legislative success came in 2014 when he helped reach a deal to attach a package of lands bills to a defense measure at the end of the 113th Congress.
It was the largest piece of public lands legislation to become law in six years and created the first new federal wilderness in Montana in more than a quarter-century.
Daines, who was serving in the House at the time, worked closely on the deal with Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) and then-Sen. John Walsh (D). It preserved and expanded the Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Management Area and wilderness, and protected about 400,000 acres west of Glacier National Park from future oil, gas and mining development.
Daines only backed it after winning concessions to convert a roadless area into land for multiple use, and requiring a new assessment of oil and gas potential in the Bridge Coulee and Musselshell Breaks wilderness study areas.
From business to politics
Daines, 53, was elected to the Senate in 2014 after only serving one term in the House in 2013-15. He cruised to victory after Walsh — who was appointed after longtime Sen. Max Baucus (D) resigned to become ambassador to China — did not run for the seat amid plagiarism charges. Democrats failed to field a top-flight candidate, and Daines won easily.
Born in California, Daines moved to Big Sky Country when he was 2 with parents who were five-generation Montanans. Now he considers himself a sixth-generation native.
Daines’ father ran a prominent construction and development company. The senator himself spent nearly two decades in business before getting involved in politics.
He spent 13 years managing operations for Procter & Gamble Co., including six years in China. Daines then worked for Montana technology startup RightNow Technologies Inc., a pioneer in cloud computing.
Daines became a top sales executive with the company, which is now the largest commercial employer in Bozeman. He made several million dollars trading stock options when technology giant Oracle Corp. took over.
Daines’ first political foray came in 2007 when he launched a website, GiveItBack.com, to press state lawmakers to return a $1 billion budget surplus to taxpayers. A year later, he made a failed run for lieutenant governor.
Daines was eyeing a challenge to Tester in 2012 but deferred to then-Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). Daines won the open House seat instead.
In Congress, Daines has carved out a solid conservative record, echoing GOP dogma in calls for tax cuts, a balanced budget and less federal regulation.
He’s more a business-minded Republican than tea party-oriented, unlike other new GOP senators in recent years, including Mike Lee of Utah and Ted Cruz of Texas.
Daines’ financial backers suggest he’s popular with the GOP’s business wing. The securities and financial sector is the largest industry backing him, and Elliott Management Corp., a hedge fund, is his single largest source of individual contribution, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Energy and oil companies also have been big backers, including Koch Industries Inc., coal miner Cloud Peak Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp.
Environmental groups, however, have not been fans of his track record, with the League of Conservation Voters giving him a 1 percent lifetime score for his voting record.
Many greens criticized his role in the 2014 lands package deal, saying he pushed concessions that gave away too much to energy producers.
But other advocates say Daines has done a good job of focusing on issues important to Montana.
"He’s been fine. I think Steve is trying to do things to help move the coal industry along, and I think that’s good," said Tester, the state’s senior senator, who enjoys an 86 percent LCV lifetime score.
Land Tawney, president of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, a conservation group, gave Daines high marks for "for listening to sportsmen" in deciding to back LWCF.
However, Tawney said Daines has been on the side of industry in his opposition to EPA implementing the Clean Water Act jurisdiction rule.
Chris Saeger, director of the Western Values Project, which aims to promote conservation in concert with responsible energy development, said Daines has yet to face a tough vote on public land issues.
"It remains to be seen how he would respond to a major effort to balance land management," he added.
When asked whether he’s an environmentalist, Daines said he’s weary of political labels. Though he’s quick to add, "I have been called the conservative conservationist."