Tester faces first tests
Great Falls Tribune
WASHINGTON — When you're a freshman in the U.S. Senate, there's little time to get acclimated to the supercharged environment. Just ask Montana's newest senator, Democrat Jon Tester.
Since being sworn in seven months ago, Tester — a farmer from Big Sandy and a former state senator — has cast votes against the Iraq war, opposing expanding the federal government's foreign eavesdropping program and against a controversial plan to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. He has voted for legislation to increase the size of the state-federal Children's Health Insurance Program and for a bill to boost conservation and "green" energy.
When he returns to Capitol Hill in September, Tester faces more votes on pulling troops out of Iraq, a five-year farm bill and 11 spending bills that will pay to keep the federal government running next fiscal year.
"We've got some good policy work done, and we've got a lot more that we're going to do," Tester said shortly before heading home for the August recess to harvest his crops and meet with constituents. "We'll just try to make things work for the country and for Montana as best we can."
In the Senate, where freshmen senators typically toil away in obscurity for several years, Tester already is known as plain-spoken, smart and friendly — but tough.
"Jon is a breath of fresh air because there is not one shred of artifice or guile (in him)," said fellow freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "With Jon, what you see is what you get. He is friendly, but I wouldn't want to be in a fight with him."
Tester sits on six committees, including ones that handle energy, veterans' issues, Indian affairs and homeland security.
Among the seven bills Tester has introduced is one that would require the federal government to recognize the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, a landless tribe headquartered in Great Falls. Another would increase the mileage reimbursement rate for veterans who travel to Veterans Affairs Department health care facilities. A third requires the federal crop-insurance program to set up a pilot initiative for farmers who grow crops for biofuels.
Conservatives give Tester high marks for voting against the immigration bill, which he campaigned against when he challenged Republican incumbent Conrad Burns. Tester opposed the bill, he said, because it would have given "amnesty" to the millions of immigrants in the country illegally. The bill died in the Senate.
Conservatives also say Tester's votes to expand SCHIP from 6 million children to 9 million and against increasing the government's electronic surveillance powers are consistent with his campaign promises, even if they don't agree with those votes.
Tester supported expanding SCHIP because it would cover 3,000 more Montana children. The program, as it stands, aids 10,900 Montana children from families who earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private health insurance. The bill passed the Senate and must be reconciled with the House version. President George Bush has vowed to veto the legislation.
"The whole SCHIP bill is something that will send us down the road to socialized medicine, which would be awful for health care consumers," said Brian Darling, director of Senate relations for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Tester said he voted against Republican-sponsored legislation temporarily expanding the Bush administration's surveillance powers because he felt it violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure. That bill has been signed into law.
Darling said Tester voted against Montana's coal industry when he voted with Democrats to kill an amendment to the energy bill introduced by Kentucky Republican Jim Bunning that would have required refineries to produce 6 billion gallons of coalto- liquid fuels by 2022. Montana has the nation's largest coal reserves and in 2004 ranked No. 6 in the nation for coal production, according to the Montana Coal Council. The coal industry provided 852 jobs in the state in 2004.
Tester offered an amendment that would have provided up to $200 million in direct loans and grants to coal-to-liquid refineries that capture at least 75 percent of their carbon emissions. That measure also was defeated, 33-61.
"You would think the consistent vote for (Tester) would've been to vote for both," Darling said, acknowledging that Bunning voted against Tester's amendment. "But when you're a freshman coming in, there's a hope that members will not just follow their party, that they'll vote for the interests of their state."
Tester's spokesman, Matt McKenna, said his boss voted against Bunning's bill because it would have required refineries to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent, which Tester didn't think was enough.
"Senator Tester wants to develop coal resources in a clean, responsible way," McKenna said. "When and if Senator Bunning wants to introduce an amendment that does that, Senator Tester will support it."
Liberals applaud Tester's support for SCHIP. Twenty percent of Montanans are uninsured, and rural residents, who tend to work for smaller employers that don't provide health insurance, often struggle to get coverage for their families, said Pat Williams, northern region director of Western Progress, a liberal think tank.
Finding health insurance in Montana often means moving away from family and friends to work for a larger company in the city, said Williams, a former Democratic congressman from Montana who now teaches at the University of Montana.