Tester quietly works on lower-profile issues

The Great Falls Tribune

by Ledyard King

WASHINGTON — While Sen. Max Baucus was working to fix America’s health care system, Montana’s other senator slipped into a hearing room last week and pressed the man in charge of the administration’s corporate bailout program about General Motors’ decision to buy a metal from a foreign producer rather than the Montana mine that had been its longtime source.

Was it appropriate, Democrat Jon Tester asked Assistant Treasury Secretary Herbert Allison, that the federal government provide billions of taxpayer dollars to stabilize GM and then do nothing when the country’s largest carmaker cancels a contract that could cost scores of American jobs?

They’ve “basically sold our workers down the tube,” Tester said, peering over his reading glasses at Allison during a Senate banking committee hearing. “How do we hold GM’s feet to the fire?”

“Well, sir, I think you’re holding their feet to the fire right now by raising this issue as effectively as you are,” responded Allison, who promised to air those concerns with administration colleagues.

Unlike his fellow Montana senator, Tester isn’t shadowed by throngs of TV cameras and reporters hanging on his every word. People aren’t stacked up outside his office hoping for a minute of his time. President Obama doesn’t invoke Tester’s name on a regular basis.

While Baucus has been working on what could be the biggest change in health care in nearly half a century, Tester has gone about the people’s business too, working on a wilderness and forestry bill, pushing for increased veterans’ benefits and marshaling money for Montana, particularly for rural water projects, through his perch on the Appropriations Committee. On Tuesday, for example, he won approval for a measure postponing fee increases for cabins on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service — small, perhaps, but important to Montanans.

At 53 and serving his first term, Tester doesn’t seem to mind the attention gap one bit.

With his signature flattop haircut emphasizing a rural, no-frills attitude, the barrel-chested organic farmer plows along with plenty to keep him busy. A typical work day on Capitol Hill finds him shuttling among committee hearings and constituent meetings, like most senators.

The difference?

Tester, who touts accountability, puts his schedule on his Web site for all to see — a first for a senator, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

Lately, he’s been chasing after General Motors over the Stillwater Mine contract for the metal palladium. GM responded Wednesday that it found a cheaper provider that will make it easier for the company to repay taxpayer funds, a response that Tester found unsatisfactory.

He’s also been focused on putting together and winning support for his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, which he said would create jobs and make forests healthier through strategic thinning, especially in areas infected by pine beetles or that pose a serious wildfire threat. The bill also would guarantee access for motorized recreation, hunting, camping and fishing and protect Montana’s verdant back-country.

Though Tester admits not everyone likes his forest proposal, he’s drawn bipartisan support. Former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, who once chaired the Republican National Committee, calls the bill “a thoughtful and sensitive attempt to start doing something serious and meaningful about the health of our forest ecosystems.”

Tester worked on the bill with one of his former colleagues in the state Senate — Republican Sherm Anderson, who owns Sun Mountain Lumber in Deer Lodge. “He tells it like it is,” Anderson said, echoing what others have said about Tester. “He’s not going to pull any punches. I like that because you’re not always guessing what he’s thinking. Most politicians, they just tell you what you want to hear. He’s not at all that way.”

Tester has also been working on his Rural Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2009, aimed at helping the 100,000 or so veterans in Montana and elsewhere whose health care options are limited and often far away.

Supported by several veterans’ groups, the measure would provide more mental health services, improve coordination and care for Indian veterans and lock in the travel reimbursement rate for disabled veterans who travel in their own vehicles for health care at 41.5 cents per mile. It had been 11 cents a mile three years ago, until Tester was able to temporarily raise it through yearly appropriations.

For Tester, who never served in the military, it’s a personal mission. As a high school student who knew how to blow a bugle, he often was asked to play taps at military funerals so mourning families wouldn’t have to make do with a recording.

Tester also likes to flash his libertarian streak, co-sponsoring a just-introduced bill that would limit what he considers the government’s overly broad authority under the Patriot Act to monitor people’s activity.

As for his partner’s work on health care, Tester generally likes what Baucus has put together after months of deliberation and consultation, though he’s not completely sold.

His biggest beef is that it’s taking too long to finish and that efforts are unfocused, with multiple committees floating their own versions.

“Get me a bill and it’ll be all hands on deck,” he said. “We will analyze it. We’ll figure out how it works for rural America. But everything is hypothetical at this point in time. … I think we need to get a bill, and then we do some talking.”