Havre Daily News: Tester talks mandates, bills and climate change in press call

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., held a press call Thursday where he talked about his vote to repeal the vaccine mandate on large employers, his bill to suspend imports of Brazilian beef, and other goings-on in Washington D.C.

Tester was one of only two Democrats in the Senate, the other being Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to join all Republicans in voting to repeal the OSHA rule that would have required private businesses with 100 or more employees to get vaccinated or submit to regular testing and wear face masks while at work.

The measure passed 52-48 and President Joe Biden has voiced his intent to veto it.

The rule was recently halted by the federal courts and is barred from being implemented.

Tester said he resolved a few days ago to vote no on the bill after hearing from Montana businesses and business leaders that the mandate has and will lead to staffing shortages and will hurt their profitability.

“There were businesses that were concerned that they were going to lose critically important technological and not-easily replaced skill sets in their staff, which would slow down their ability to be profitable,” he said.

He said these businesses universally expressed their desire for everyone to get vaccinated but it’s very difficult to navigate the mandate.

“It’s become so onerous for businesses that it just wasn’t workable,” he said.

Despite his opposition to the rule, he said, he fully supports vaccination and urge Montanans to get immunized as soon as possible, that the vaccines are safe and effective.

“My family’s been vaccinated, my staff has been vaccinated, the people I work with in the Senate are all vaccinated,” he said. “I just thought that this was too burdensome.”

Tester said many of these businesses will be critical to the massive infrastructure bill passed last month, which he said will create at least 800,000 jobs, better roads and bridges, 21st century water systems, accessible broadband for everyone in the state, pay for improvements to the nation’s ports and border crossings, and, maybe, most importantly, it will allow the U.S. to maintain an economic advantage over China.

“When we think about dysfunction in Washington D.C., and there is plenty to think about, you can think about the fact that we actually got something good done for small businesses, large businesses and working families in our state,” he said about the bill’s passage.

He said he has no problem whatsoever with the federal government’s attempt to make sure that contractors who work with the government are fully vaccinated.

Tester said that mandate sets the rules up ahead of time instead of imposing requirements on business that will put them at a disadvantage.

He also said he doesn’t support this mandate for private businesses but he does support requirements that health care workers be vaccinated, as they are working around people who are at risk of death should they get COVID-19 and they can’t afford to have unvaccinated people putting them at risk.

When asked if he received any pressure from the White House to vote to uphold the rule he said it was nothing out of the ordinary, but he told them the same thing he’s said in the press conference.

Tester’s vote was praised by the Montana Camber of Commerce in a release that called it “a win for Montana businesses.”

“The Montana Chamber of Commerce applauds Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines for their votes against this unnecessary regulation of business.” the release says.

On the subject of health care, Tester said he also supports legislation that will prevent Medicare payment cuts by extending the pause on Medicare and PAYGO sequester reductions.

The legislation passed the Senate that day and has since cleared Congress.

Tester said health care is critically important for rural Montana, supporting communities that could not cannot exist without it, and the Medicare payment cuts, that would have gone into effect Jan. 1, threaten that.

He also talked about a bill he’s looking to get passed that would suspend the import of Brazilian beef.

This bill comes in the wake of complaints from organizations representing US beef producers that government agencies in Brazil are not reporting outbreaks of animal diseases in a timely manner to the World Organization for Animal Health, which Tester said they should have done.

In June, Brazil had two cases of atypical bovine spongiform encephalopathy, known as Mad Cow Disease, but didn’t report the cases until September.

Tester also talked about the state of the meat packing industry, which he is working to have investigated for violations of the Packers and Stockyards Act.

He said many big packing facilities had to close down during the pandemic, resulting in lower prices at the farm gate and higher prices for the consumer.

“That tells me we need to do some things to introduce more competition in that marketplace,” he said.

Tester said he has a number of bills to do that just that, including one that would establish and office of special investigator to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, which was passed 100 years ago in a time when there was less concentration in the industry than there is now.

He said he also supports a bill that will allow the selling of state-inspected meat across state lines.

He said some consumer groups have objected to that bill and he’s trying set up a time to meet with them to explain the reality of safe meat production.

After his opening remarks, he was asked about Gov. Greg Gianforte’s efforts to get the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to delist the grizzly population in the Northern Continental Divied Ecosystem.

Tester said if the science behind the effort to delist them is sound then he has no problem with it, but if it’s being done on a whim he will absolutely oppose it.

He said he applies the same standard to this situation as he applied to wolves, though he implied the Gianforte administration’s handling of the wolf population in the wake of their delisting has been subpar.

“Wolves are a prime example, the science indicated that they were recovered and they needed to be managed correctly,” he said. “Now, I think maybe the governor and some of the folks in the Legislature forgot about the term ‘manage correctly.'”

Tester was also asked about the recent fire in Denton, which covered over 10,000 acres and burned 25 homes and grain elevators in town.

“All our hearts go out to the folks in Denton,” he said.

Tester said this is one among many fires that have and are devastating the state, and it is undeniably a result of climate change creating more extreme weather in the state.

“This is December and we’re talking about significant destructive fires in Montana. I’m 65 years old, I’ve lived in this state my entire life and I do not remember this kind of impact from fires in December. It’s amazing, and it’s about climate, it’s absolutely about climate,” he said. ” … We need to start taking this seriously.”

He said the Build Back Better Plan still being debated in Congress does include funds to help combat climate change but the problem is getting more extreme and everyone needs to wake up and realize what Mother Nature is telling them.

Tester said he can see things getting worse before his own eyes on his farm.

He said even with a few inches of recent snow, it’s still about the driest fall he’s ever seen in 44 years of operation.

“It’s starting to scare the hell out of me, quiet frankly,” he said.

2021 was rough year for Montana, Tester said, but he thinks Congress has done some good work this year and he hopes everyone has a happy holidays.