MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer BUTTE
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester said that a so-called "public option" in the health care bill is optional for him and said he is not yet committed to backing the plan being put together by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus. Tester said Wednesday he could envision voting for a health care reform bill with or without the option that would let the uninsured buy into a Medicare type government program. "I don't need it either way," Tester told The Associated Press between meetings with constituents. "I could either support it or not support it. It's all in the design." Tester said it is more important to find a combination of ideas that can gather enough votes to get out of the Senate although he is not yet certain it can be done. He also said the bill can't add to the deficit, even if that means adopting a tax on wealthier people to help pay for it. "I too am worried about the national debt," Tester said. "I certainly don't support taxing the middle class, they pay their fair share already. But I think you are going to have to give something to get something." So far, the Democrat has left much of the health care policy to Baucus, the state's senior senator and the key figure in bipartisan reform negotiations. Baucus has also said finding 60 Votes in the Senate is most important to him, even if that means pitching the public option that is sought by many liberals and that Baucus himself has spoken favorably of in the past. But Tester is not promising to back what comes out of Baucus' committee. The junior Democrat said he needs to see the legislation expected mid-September before making a final decision. "I trust Max, but I honestly need to see it," Tester said. The Democrat said he has spent little time looking at more liberal legislation out of the House because he doesn't think it will make it to the Senate floor. Tester said he likes such insurance reform as preventing companies from banning pre-existing injuries, canceling insurance when disease strikes and others that could rein in the double-digit cost increase of medical bills. "Is that meaningful change?" Tester said. "If you have a pre-existing condition and you can't get insured, that's a meaningful change." Tester said he believes that such a bill can move through Congress, but understands many pitfalls remain. "If the votes aren't there, you'll have to say you did the best you could and then you move on," said Tester. Health care reform has been the pivotal issue for lawmakers spending August back home for the congressional recess. But Tester has also been spending time touting his huge Montana forestry bill that mandates more logging while setting aside more wilderness and recreation area. He said he thinks most like the consensus approach of the bill that brought logging and conservation groups together by touting more timber jobs and more protected land for recreation. He hopes it can clear Congress early next year but acknowledged health care reform is dominating everything. "We are going to give it our very best shot," Tester said. "I have to say, though, that health care is taking up a lot of air. How I convince leadership to take this up is going to be a challenge." Tester has not held any town hall-style public meetings on health care during the August recess. In other places they have led to intense shouting matches and made many representatives uncomfortable. Tester has packed his schedule with meetings with smaller groups. Wednesday in Butte he held on-air radio interviews, spoke with hospital officials worried that reform would miss the mark and met with local officials who want to speed cutting of dead and dying forest trees before leaving for his farm in Big Sandy to help finish cutting the grain crop.