HELENA — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester says his biggest priority after re-election would be to push a bipartisan balanced budget solution that has so far languished in Congress, while challenger U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg counters that tax cuts and repealing the federal health care law should top the list.
Tester said in an interview with the Associated Press last week that he wants more of his re-election race focused on second-term priorities. And he doesn't just want to chip away at the deficit — he wants to advance a wholesale fix originally drafted by a bipartisan panel that both cut spending and increased some taxes.
Tester wants to bring back the 2010 blueprint drafted by a bipartisan debt commission. It included proposals tough for both sides to swallow, and stalled amid criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.
The framework called for an increase in the social security retirement age and associated payroll tax, restrictions on many current tax deductions, and cuts to military spending that includes closing overseas bases. It also included a cut in the top corporate income tax rate as a means to spur economic growth, while also cutting discretionary government spending.
The goal was to balance the budget within a few years. Tester was the only member of the Montana delegation to originally back it, and said he could again with some changes.
The Democrat said he would push it forward to floor action because the deficit is "the number one issue that faces this country." He said it will take compromise on both sides, and that solutions will be harder to find the longer Congress waits.
"Is everything in there I like? Absolutely not," Tester said of that debt reduction blueprint. "But what I do like is that it is big, and it impacts everything and it really does take a big step forward in recognizing that everything is on the table."
Rehberg said in an interview that he cannot support the tax increases in that plan. Rehberg said he does not trust that the spending cuts under that proposal would last, while believing the tax increases would.
"The economy has not improved, and now he wants to raise taxes on certain sectors of the economy?" Rehberg said.
Rehberg said he wants to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, paid for by new budget cuts, while making make sure the so-called death tax is eliminated. He said a Republican majority would need to be in place for several legislative sessions, and stick with its promises to constrain spending.
Still, a balanced budget could be a long way off.
"One of the ways you balance the budget is you allow your economy to catch up to your debt," Rehberg said. "If it takes 10 years, 11 years, then the public is going to have a lot of time to look and say 'we don't like this policy' and make a change."
Rehberg said he also wants to roll back regulations on business such as the Dodd-Frank law, which Democrats enacted after the 2008 meltdown in an attempt to toughen financial-industry regulations. But Rehberg said it is also making life harder on small banks in Montana.
Then, of course, he wants to repeal the federal health care law that includes the expansion of Medicaid rolls and instead replace it with favored Republican ideas for health care. Rehberg said the repeal would also have to nix provisions already enacted that have been better received, such as regulations banning insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.
Rehberg argues the moves would help reduce budget deficits.
"Now is the time to understand our deficits are getting beyond our ability to repay them," Rehberg said.
Other top priorities:
• Tester wants to repeal tax credits given to the largest oil companies, arguing the highly profitable companies no longer need them. Rehberg counters that the credits are targeted to keep the companies drilling for oil in places that may otherwise not be profitable in order to increase the supply of oil.
• Rehberg said he would spur energy development by reducing regulations and limiting the ability for opponents to sue over permits.
• Tester wants to again advance his Forest Service mandate to both increase logging and wilderness area, backed in a compromise by some environmentalists and timber companies. Rehberg has opposed that plan, in part because he does not believe the logging would really take place.