Missoulian:Tester floats bipartisan option for Senate progress

by Rob Chaney

Montana’s senior U.S. senator, Jon Tester, hopes to bring his fellow Democrats together on a post-pandemic spending plan, but he’s willing to reassemble a bipartisan working group if that opens a route to Senate action.

“With the 10 of us, it was frustrating 85% of the time,” Tester said of the five Republican and five Democratic senators who drove the compromise on President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill last August. “But the last 15% was worth it. We all came together and it all worked.”

The majority party has had less success coalescing around Biden’s $1.75-trillion Build Back Better proposal, with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., declaring it dead in February. Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona has also refused to support it, preventing the Democrats from delivering their 51-vote majority in the Senate.

During a visit Tuesday with the Missoulian editorial board, Tester said he frequently agreed with Manchin about how some parts of the BBB plan lacked wide support, and that Sinema raised legitimate pay-for questions about the spending levels.

But he also thought a coalition was possible with Republican colleagues such as Rob Portman of Ohio, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine – all members of the bipartisan infrastructure team. Last week’s quiet passage of a continuing resolution on the fiscal 2022 budget gave him hope business could get done.

“I think we’ll have a budget done by the 11th,” Tester said of the new March deadline before the nation defaults on its debts. “The biggest divide now is between the House and Senate, not the Democrats and Republicans.”

Making progress and taking credit for it will be essential for the Democrats to remain in power, Tester said.

“We made so many errors last year,” Tester said. “If we get a bunch of big things accomplished this year and then don’t talk about them, we’re going to get our ass handed to us.”

Tester credited the American Rescue Plan Act and the infrastructure bills of 2021 with preventing the American economy from collapsing during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic disruptions, including keeping people in their homes, keeping their businesses functioning and helping schools get back open.

Republicans have countered the federal spending has driven inflation to the highest level in 40 years. Montana’s Republican Sen. Steve Daines criticized the Build Back Better plan in December, claiming it would force Montana families to spend an extra $4,600 a year in higher prices for beef, eggs and used cars.

Tester countered that federal spending on things like road repair, child care and broadband improvements were anti-inflationary, because they helped people be more productive in their jobs and lives. And he had yet to see what the Republicans were offering as an alternative.

“The question is – what’s their idea?” Tester said. “What do they bring to the table?”