Transcript: Sen. Jon Tester on "Face the Nation," December 30, 2018

by Face the Nation

The following is a transcript of the interview with Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana that aired Sunday, Dec. 30, 2018, on “Face the Nation.”

MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester, another member of the committee in charge of government spending. He’s also one of only two moderate Democrats to win re-election in a reliable be- reliably red state. Good morning to you, Senator.

SENATOR JON TESTER: It’s great to be here, Margaret. Thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Your colleague Senator Shelby said negotiations are at an impasse and they need to find out what Democrats want and when. As the Democrat here what can you explain?

SEN. TESTER: Well first of all, Margaret, I would just say that you know we passed a bill a couple of year- couple of weeks ago to keep- keep the government open. And the House refused to take it up. I think that the fact we’re at a government shutdown is nothing short of ridiculous. I think that Senator Shelby and- and others are- are spot on. We need to sit down and- and pound out a deal. I think that that agreement that the- the Senate passed- in a bipartisan way, a couple weeks ago would have give us the opportunity to come to an agreement. The problem is-is- is that the president has one point three billion dollars from last year for- for border security, actually 21 billion for border security, one point three for the wall that he has spent very, very little of that.

MARGARET BRENNAN: He says needs more.

SEN. TESTER: Yeah. And he says yet he needs more. Yet there’s no plan to go where the money how the money is going to be spent or any analysis on what’s most effective to secure the border. Bottom line is, Margaret, is that I don’t talk to anybody in the Senate that doesn’t want secure borders. It’s just how the money is going to be spent. And if the president wants to continue to take a campaign promise that he made, which was to have Mexico pay for a wall and say no the rules have changed now we’re still going to build a wall but we’re going to have the American taxpayer pay for it we’re going to use the American taxpayer like an A.T.M. machine. That’s not the right direction to go.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The White House says it’s Democrats who walked away from the table. You heard Senator Shelby say there there was an offer that he put forward of two and a half billion this year two and a half billion next year. What happened to that?

SEN. TESTER: Well I think that- that that deal never got passed leadership. But- but what did happen this last year is the president asked for one point six billion dollars in his budget proposal for this next year. The Appropriations Committee, which Senator Shelby chairs, and Senator Leahy is a ranking member of agreed to that in a bipartisan way. Senator Shelby voted for it. Senator McConnell voted for it. The president moved the goalposts and said, no, now I want five billion.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Well and they’ve come down to around two. Why can’t Democrats come up from one point three?

SEN. TESTER: Well I think that that’s negotiations that need to be done between leadership between Senator Shelby, Senator Leahy and others and move forth. But the big thing is is that how is the money going to be spent. What’s the most effective way to secure that southern border. And that’s really what’s important here. I think we can do it with technology and manpower and much more effectively than- than with a wall.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You heard Senator Shelby say there that he thinks probably you’re going to have to talk about things that Democrats have said they wanted including protections for dreamers. Is that the kind of sweetener that would get Democrats to reconsider?

SEN. TESTER: Well I think we’ve been here before. I was- I was in the room when the president said if- if Congress passes that I’m going to sign it. And then he moved back away from that. And so I think ultimately in the end we do need comprehensive immigration reform, there’s no doubt about that, Margaret. But- but in the end we need to know what the president wants. And hopefully he’ll stick to it. When we passed the bipartisan funding to go to the first of February, a couple weeks ago, the president said he was gonna sign it. And then after we passed it he said he wasn’t going to sign it. We need some predictability.

MARGARET BRENNAN: The president said, of those two migrant children who’ve died in U.S. custody, that it’s Democrats fault. Essentially he’s arguing that there’s incentives that are in U.S. law that encourage people to cross and take this really dangerous migration route. How do you respond to that?

SEN. TESTER: Well I respond to the fact that we need comprehensive immigration reform that needs to be there for a while. I think it’s everybody’s fault. This is unacceptable. And- and the bottom line is is that if we’re able to get comprehensive immigration reform done, which is going to require some–

MARGARET BRENNAN: That’s a big ask.

SEN. LEADERSHIP–leadership in the White House too. Then I think that we will see things settle down in the southern border in a big, big way.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is there a cost for Democrats to appear to work with the president?

SEN. TESTER: No, I think what Democrats need to do is they need to work for the country and make sure that not only the southern border, but the northern border is secure make sure that we have the ability on the borders to be able to screen every vehicle coming across to make sure that drugs don’t come into this country. And I think that if we’re able to get a plan to be able to do that, which I don’t think is that hard to do, I think Democrats and Republicans can work together to- to make sure that we have a secure border and- and keep this country safe.

MARGARET BRENNAN: When we introduced to you I pointed out that you were one of only two Democratic senators to get reelected in a state that the president took by double digits back in 2016 and the president came to Montana and personally campaigned against you.


MARGARET BRENNAN: How do- how do you take your win and advise other Democrats on how to win states in the West and Midwest?

MARGARET BRENNAN: I don’t look like your basic Democrat, Margaret. And- we still farm. My wife and I still farm and we still believe in the citizen-legislature model. We go everywhere in the state. I go everywhere in the state and I listen to Montanans whether it’s in conservative areas or liberal areas and take those ideas back to Washington D.C. and put them into action. I think it’s more of a function of- of listening and going everywhere. I don’t believe in models that say you just knock on this door, you just go to this community and you’ll get elected. I think you go everywhere and you listen to everybody. Everybody’s got ideas. Some of them are great and take those great ideas back to Washington D.C. and that’s how we win.

MARGARET BRENNAN: In saying that though are you implying that Democrats have gotten out of touch with the part of the country you’re from?

SEN. TESTER: I think all politicians have gotten out of touch. In fact, that they just go to certain places where they think they can get enough votes to win. I think that what makes this country great is a Washington D.C. that works for everybody and works for this country. And in order to do that you’ve got to go everywhere and listen to everybody’s concerns and needs and go back and try to find solutions.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You said you’re one of a few working farmers still in the Senate, so I want to ask you about the impact of the trade war.


MARGARET BRENNAN: The White House put together the second bailout package for–


MARGARET BRENNAN: American farmers because of some of the impact of- of the trade war. What has been the impact you’ve seen in your state and are people questioning their support for the president because of that?

SEN. TESTER: Well margins in production agriculture are always really narrow. And so when you get a situation where you start to lose export markets, which is what has happened with this- with this trade war, you end up lowering prices at the farm gate. You have more play- more farms that potentially go into a situation where they’re not solvent anymore and bankruptcy. The trade war has to end. We need those foreign markets. I personally have about 40 percent of my crop still on the farm from 2017 because of the trade war. Most folks can’t stand that, in fact after about 18 months they’ll start going broke. We need those markets. We need to hold China accountable, but we need the markets and we need to move forward. There are other ways to put pressure on China other than using the family farmer, the American farmer as a tool. For instance use the financial system. It’ll bring them to- bring them to- to the table much more quickly I believe and it won’t put folks in rural America out of business and I think that if this continues we’ll see more farmers go broke and we’ll see rural America further- further be- be further diminished.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Senator Tester thank you for coming on the show–

SEN. TESTER: Margaret, thank you.

MARGARET BRENNAN: –and good to have you here in person.