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Constitution Caucus aims to push Republicans to right

by Cody Bloomsburg & Community News Service
| January 18, 2011 11:35 AM

They call it the Constitution Caucus,

and its message rang clear as veteran Rep. Krayton Kerns rose in

the state House Friday to oppose a bill to provide counseling for

children from violent homes.

“Don’t vote your heart on this one,

vote your oath,” Kerns urged his fellow legislators. “The

constitutional vote on this is no because it will grow

government.”

Rep. James Knox, a freshman Republican

from Billings, couldn’t have agreed more. Killing the bill wasn’t

the easy thing to do, he said, but it is why he and others were

sent to Helena. Helping the needy is a job for communities,

individuals and churches – not the government, he added.

Both men are members of what they call

the Constitution Caucus, a loose affiliation of conservative

legislators, some with ties to Tea Party groups. Their unifying

belief is that more government means less freedom.

The “freedom bills” they espouse so far

cover causes ranging from beating back federal health-care reform

to expanding gun rights.

Just how much clout the caucus will

have this session is unclear. By a vote of 56-44, it lost Friday’s

vote on the child domestic violence bill, which was sponsored by a

fellow Republican. Convincing more centrist Republicans to follow

along may be the group’s biggest challenge.

“It is so easy to get soft up here,”

Kerns said in an interview early last week. “It is so easy when

you’re wasting somebody else’s money. You can vote for this little

program for these little kids, for those little kids, and it’s

tough to hold on to constitutional principles.”

Kerns, a 53-year-old Laurel

veterinarian serving in his third session, ran unsuccessfully for

House speaker in November. He has his own website and is the author

of “Ramblings of a Conservative Cow Doctor,” a collection of

columns published in the Western Ag Reporter and the Laurel

Outlook.

For now, he said, the caucus is

informal. It has no official members list but Kerns estimated that

as many as 45 legislators agree with its causes. In the Senate,

caucus members include Sen. Verdell Jackson, a Kalispell Republican

whose bills include efforts to nullify the federal health-care act

and to allow legislators to carry concealed weapons in the

capitol.

Another supporter, Sen. Greg Hinkle,

R-Thompson Falls, has a bill saying that federal authorities can

only carry out arrests, searches and seizures with the permission

of local sheriffs. The “Sheriff’s First” bill is one of the most

important pieces of legislation the group is working on this

session, Kerns said.

“We’re not going to back off,” Kerns

said. “We (Republicans) have a 68-vote majority in the House for a

reason and we’re going to advance the constitutional principles

that elected us.”

Kerns’ own bills include efforts to

legalize the carrying of a concealed weapon without permits and to

use silencers in the field. Another would to nullify the federal

Endangered Species Act so Montana would have full say in managing

its wildlife.

He is no stranger to such issues. Two

years ago Kerns backed an unsuccessful resolution declaring that

Montana has the right under the U.S. Constitution’s Tenth Amendment

to ignore any federal law it deemed unconstitutional.

Both Kerns and Knox said they see the

caucus’ principles matching up with those of Tea Party movement,

and both said they work closely with their hometown

organizations.

Jackson refers to the Tea Party groups

as “freedom groups” because of their focus on Tenth Amendment

rights and state sovereignty. He said he wanted to call the caucus

the Freedom Caucus or the Freedom Group for that reason.

Kerns said some caucus members worried

that linking the group too closely with the Tea Party would lead

the news media to portray the caucus as a split from the Republican

Party.

“And I’m telling you it’s not going to

happen,” he said.

Rep. Cary Smith, a Republican whip from

Billings, said he supports the caucus but worries about tying it

too closely to the Tea Party. He doesn’t want to discourage

Democrats from joining the group, whose focus, he added, is on

states’ rights, not party lines.

For their part, Democratic leaders in

both houses said they aren’t ruling out collaborations with

Republicans on efforts to boost Montana’s economy or create jobs,

but don’t foresee an alliance on state sovereignty issues.

As for the Republican leadership, House

Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, said he hasn’t attended

Constitution Caucus meetings but then he doesn’t have time to

attend many meetings. He described the Constitution Caucus no

different than any group of legislators with a special

interest.

Kerns agreed with McGillvray to some

extent.

“We all have the common goal about

freedom and advancing constitutional principles,” he said. “There

are those of us who feel stronger about it than others, and we’re

just going to work to drag them along.”

Craig Wilson, a professor of political

science at MSU-Billings, said such divisions are common when

parties that have large legislative majorities. He also predicted

that more moderate Republicans would occasionally vote with

moderate Democrats, especially when it comes to nullifying federal

laws.

“If they take off on some grand scheme,

I don’t think it’s going to work,” Wilson said. “Even if they get

it through the House and the Senate, you still have the governor

there with that big club in terms of a veto.”

— — —

(Cody Bloomsburg is a University of

Montana journalism student covering the Legislature. He can be

reached at 208-816-0809 or by e-mail at

crbloomsburg@hotmail.com).