Montana Public Radio: Sen. Tester on his priorities for the current Senate session

by Edward F. O’Brien

The 118th Congress is now well underway following a midterm election that left Democrats maintaining control of the U.S. Senate. Republicans flipped the U.S. House last fall.

Montana Public Radio’s Edward O’Brien reached out to members of the state’s delegation to discuss their ambitions this session.

[Editor’s note: This interview was recorded before Tester announced his plans to run for reelection in the Senate.]

Democratic Senator Jon Tester is now serving his second term as chair of the influential Veterans Affairs Committee. In that capacity he will lead a Senate investigation into a suspected Chinese spy balloon. This interview was recorded before it and other unpiloted craft were detected over Montana.

Last summer President Joe Biden signed Sen. Tester’s PACT Act into law, expanding health care benefits to millions of veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.

Senator Tester: To be able to have the VA in a position where they can deliver the health care and the benefits that these folks have earned because of toxic exposures is really critically important. And then the PACT Act is something else, too, because we know that over time the VA is going to get more and more demands put on it due to toxic exposures. It also has allowed for building capacity and manpower and buildings. We’re doing some stuff this session to make sure that the VA actually addresses those issues, too.

Edward O’Brien: And this opens the door to the Careers Act, which I believe you introduced. It’s meant to bolster the VA in implementing this thing, correct?

Senator Tester: That’s 100% correct. It dovetails in with the PACT Act in that it allows the VA to get much more aggressive in hiring and make them much more competitive with the private sector. This is important because we need more physicians, dentists, optometrists. I mean, the list goes long for health care professionals we need in the VA. It also reimburses professional education costs, which is something that also is something that will help with recruitment.

Edward O’Brien: Senator Tester, the Major Richard Star Act ran out of gas, I believe, in a House committee last year. I know you plan on reintroducing it. What is it and why did it fail?

Senator Tester: So, it was very close to passage last year. I mean, we were within a breath of getting this thing across the line. It failed because of how much it costs. And it’s not insignificant. But, I will say that when we send folks off to war, we don’t tell them we’re going to take care of them if we have the money, we tell them we’re going to take care of them. And in this particular case, we have folks who went to war, they have combat related injuries. They were forced to retire due to medical problems. And then we don’t give them a full pension. We just give them part of a pension. That’s not right.

Edward O’Brien: I hear what you’re saying about, you can’t put a price tag on the obligation that we have to our veterans. But let me ask anyway, what is that price tag?

Senator Tester: We fully don’t know because we fully don’t know the numbers, but it’s in the tens of billions of dollars a year. So it’s not insignificant.

Edward O’Brien: Speaking of tens of billions, the U.S. has committed at least that in military and defense spending for Ukraine. That is an enormous amount of money during a time when many Americans are having a tough time making basic ends meet. So do those Americans who say, I get it, Putin’s naked aggression cannot stand unanswered. But when is enough enough at the same time?

Senator Tester: The truth is this. We’ve got a situation where Putin went into Ukraine unprovoked. I think it’s one of these you pay me now, you pay me later, because I don’t think Putin stops with Ukraine. You got to take the guy at his word. And he says he wants to bring the Soviet Union back to the way it used to be. So, when he gets done with Ukraine, what stops him from going into Poland or Lithuania or any of those other countries? I think it’s important we support the Ukrainians and we give them what they need to be able to win this war. I will tell you, I am very concerned about the amount of money we’re spending on it. And I’m also very concerned about what’s going to cause this war to end, because we do have to get it to a point where we can see an end in sight. And right now there isn’t.

Edward O’Brien: Switching gears back to the domestic front, the federal debt ceiling is once again in the spotlight. And we’ve been here many times before. Some Repubs at this time want to leverage the debt ceiling issue to make some spending cuts. Is there any room for negotiation here from your perspective?

Senator Tester: So there’s always room for negotiation. But let me point out, this money’s already been spent. If we don’t increase the debt ceiling like we did, I believe, three times during the Trump administration, then interest rates go up for everybody. The economy will go into a huge recession and probably depression. Now, is the national debt being at $31 trillion something that I like? Absolutely not. But there are ways to address a debt in a reasonable way, in a bipartisan way. Furthermore, the Constitution’s 14th Amendment says we’re going to pay our debts. And so what I would say is, is that live up to our obligations and make the fight when the appropriations bills or authorization bills are passed, attach a debt ceiling increase to those bills so that the people that vote for them automatically increase the debt ceiling and have those fights then. Not after the money’s been spent. And now we’re not going to pay the credit card. It’s very dangerous to play with this.

Edward O’Brien: You’ve been in office for, what is it, 16 years? Is that correct?

Senator Tester: That is correct. I mean, I was 50 years old when I walked through these doors. Now, you know, gosh knows I’m getting old.

Edward O’Brien: You have two years left in your in your current term. What’s left undone? What are your top big picture priorities?

Senator Tester: Well, I think the biggest problem we’ve got in this country right now is division. And if there’s some way we can help bring, I can help bring, people back together by working together across the aisle, I think that’s huge. I think what we’re seeing is more and more division coming to Congress. And I think that’s unfortunate because Montana was built by people working together, and I think they understand that that’s pretty critical. We got to have folks who work together. But in the end, I will say this and I say this from my position as defense chair and as VA chair, the world is not a friendly place right now. And I don’t know that it’s ever been as friendly as we wanted. But if you take a look at what Russia is doing, what China wants to do, what North Korea is doing and what Iran is doing and has done, I think it’s really important that we’re very smart and how we spend the money and that we don’t take our eye off the ball. We are the leading economic power in this world, we are the leading country when it comes to defending freedom in this world. Look, there’s a lot of things to do from building our VA and making sure it has the manpower and the buildings it needs, to making sure there’s competition in the marketplace for our folks in rural America, our farmers and ranchers, and for our consumers to get a fair price. There’s a lot to do with the bipartisan infrastructure we passed to make sure we get broadband out to all corners of the great state of Montana. And we’ve got a full slate for the 118th Congress.

[Editor’s note: This interview was recorded before Tester announced his plans to run for reelection in the Senate.]

FILE - Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., questions Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen as she testifies before the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing, May 10, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Tester says he'll seek reelection to a fourth term in 2024. The Democrat's announcement on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, boosts his party's chances of holding the seat as it tries to hang on to a narrow Senate majority.

Tester announces his reelection bid in a high-stakes Senate race

Montana’s only statewide elected Democrat will seek reelection to the U.S. Senate. Jon Tester’s campaign launch gives a boost to Democrats’ 2024 hopes of holding on to their slim majority in the upper chamber.

Edward O’Brien: Late last year, you said you’re going to take the holiday to mull over your political future. How’d those conversations go? What’d you decide?

Senator Tester: Well, we haven’t decided yet Ed, and we will probably pretty soon. We’re discussing, it’s you know, it’s a six year commitment. It’s one of those things that if you’re in business and you’re making a six year commitment, you talk about it and you make sure it’s the right thing to do. And that’s exactly what we’re doing right now in my family.

Edward O’Brien: What are the issues that you’re weighing?

Senator Tester: Well, there’s a number of them. I don’t know if I want to get right into them, but I’ll just tell you one. My wife had breast cancer at the beginning of the pandemic and she’s been cancer free for the last, it’ll be two years in May. And there’s a lot of folks that are listening to this show right now that know that that’s not an easy road. And I’ve been married to my wife, Charlotte, for 45 years, and I want to make sure that I’m doing the right thing by her.

Edward O’Brien: Thrilled to hear she’s doing well. That’s wonderful news. Last question. The past couple of election cycles, it has been a bloodletting for Montana Democrats. You’re the last remaining statewide elected Dem in Montana. Why? And what does your party need to do to reconnect with Montana voters?

Senator Tester: You’ve got to meet Montanans where they’re at. And I can tell you that as the Republicans have wanted all hasn’t been because of their good fortune. It’s because we’ve had a lot of folks out there that haven’t met people where they’re at and talk to folks at their doorstep and you got to go visit with them. And by the way, typical policy makers tend to talk too much and listen too little. You need to go listen to what people are saying and then, take those ideas and work with them. I mean, the ideas, you know, we just talked about the Careers Act and the Build Act. Both those bills came from Montanans. They came from people who come up to me and said, look, this was my experience in the VA. I think this is what you need to do to help fix it. And I think if Democrats went out and did more of that kind of stuff, they’d be much more successful in the elections.