Havre Daily News: Tester on defense bills, FBIC compact, border security in press call

by Patrick Johnston

In his last rural press call of the year Thursday, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., discussed the recent passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, recent negotiations over Ukraine aid and border security and the ongoing effort to pass the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Compact and Settlement Act.

Tester said the defense bill was passed Wednesday evening and it will ensure U.S. safety is maintained broadly, but will also provide a number of direct benefits to Montana.

He said the bill included $10.3 million for Malmstrom Air Force Base for construction and land acquisition, and $30 million for the Montana Air National Guard.

The most important benefit, however, he said, is a 5.2 percent pay increase for all service members, which is the largest raise for them in more than 20 years.

In the call he said he regrets that Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., held the promotions for military personnel up for so many months because he didn’t like the military’s reproductive health care policy.

Not long after the call the Senate passed a bill to provide back payment to those whose promotions were held up.

Unfortunately, Tester said during the call, one thing that wasn’t attached to the bill was the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Compact and Settlement Act, which the Senate hoped to pass along with it.

The compact, in addition to settling water rights between the Fort Belknap Indian Community, funds infrastructure for clean drinking water and irrigation, contains $275 million in mitigation funds for the Milk River Project, which has been in need of rehabilitation for many years and is vital to local agriculture producers.

The settlement has been more than a decade in the making with collaboration between local, tribal, state and federal governments as well as stakeholders, and is the last water settlement in Montana to be finalized.

Tester said they will need to attach the compact to something else after Jan. 1, and it may be a battle, especially with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, R-La., in charge.

“It’s important to me, but it’s more important to the people of Fort Belknap,” he said. “… We gotta get the delegation together and fight like hell to get it through, and it’s going to take more of a fight because the speaker is against us.”

Tester also spoke in support of ongoing negotiations between Democrats and Republicans regarding Ukraine aid and border security.

He said Russia, in its invasion of Ukraine, has been working hard on a propaganda campaign to convince Ukrainian soldiers that the U.S. has abandoned them, but he believes that Democrats, and most Republicans, are in favor of continued support, as he is.

“The reason Ukraine has been successful in this war, and they have been successful in this war, is because they are fighting for freedom and democracy, they are fighting for something they believe in,” he said. “The Russian troops are fighting for Putin, someone they don’t believe in.”

He said he supports efforts to increase security on the southern border to combat illegal immigration, drug trafficking and fix a broken system, and said those standing in the way of those solutions are only doing so to keep a wedge issue alive for political reasons.

However, he said, he is cautiously optimistic that solutions to both issues can be found during these negotiations.

He said U.S. Border Patrol and law enforcement in general need more resources to do that and must be supported in their efforts.

Tester also spoke about the Joe Biden administration opening the country up to beef imports from Paraguay despite ongoing concerns about how it is produced.

He said until it can be shown the Paraguayan beef can hold up to the production standards of Montana, it should not be allowed on shelves in the U.S.

“Montana ranchers produce the best beef in the world,” Tester said. “That’s not bragging, it’s a fact.”

Tester said there is a lot more to do in Congress generally and he hopes the desire to go home for the holidays spurs on a much-needed sense of urgency among his colleagues.

He said needed military bills are still on the table and if Congress doesn’t get a move on they could be staring down the barrel of yet another government shutdown, which will affect everything from social security to farm services, and yet another continuing resolution with the previous budget isn’t going to cut it this time.