U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont ., said Thursday that since a compromise was reached last Monday to allow votes to take place on President Barack Obama’s nominations for positions, the tone of the Senate has changed.
“Honestly, it has felt different this week than it has felt at any time in my six years in the Senate,” Tester said from Washington in a telephonic press conference. “We’re actually starting to move some stuff and starting to vote on stuff, which I think is critically important.”
He added that he will wait to see if the bipartisan mood continues — he is a bit skeptical, but hopeful, Tester said.
After a closed-door session in the Old Senate Chamber last Monday that lasted three hours — Tester said it involved only senators without any staff members present — the Republicans and Democrats agreed to move forward with votes on seven nominations, which Democrats had said for months Republicans were holding up with threats of filibusters.
The meeting was held after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev ., ramped up threats to suspend the rules on filibusters, which requires a vote of 60 senators to move a bill to a vote.
By Thursday night, the Senate had approved four of the seven previously stalled nominations.
Tester said the bipartisan deal has allowed motions to move to a vote — including a vote Thursday on an amendment he proposed to take $1.2 billion in funding to build a new livestock disease testing facility he opposes and use it to backfill other projects cut by sequestration.
“I don’t mind losing a vote if we had that opportunity to vote,” he said Thursday. “Today, for example, on that facility in Manhattan, Kan ., I lost — I lost big, by the way — but we had the vote, and that’s really what’s important.”
Tester has for several years opposed spending the money to move a disease research facility from off the coast of New York to the middle of “Tornado Alley” in the heart of beef country. He said Thursday, for example, that money could instead be used to backfill cuts to agricultural research such as at the research centers in Montana. His amendment would have shifted the $1.2 billion to immigration enforcement and aid to firefighters.
He said the closed-door meeting last Monday heard similar comments from members of both parties.
“What was expressed in that caucus, on both sides of aisle, is the frustration of folks that have been obstructing bills, nominees, nominations going forward,” Tester said. “I think that, in the end, the majority in both caucuses won and we were able to break this gridlock that’s been going on since, like I said, since I have been in Washington, and now we’re starting to see some things move.
“You know, some of these candidates may go down and some bills will still go down, there’s no doubt about that, but at least we can have the debate and have votes and that’s really what this is about, so I do think it did a lot of good, and I hope that hopefully this kind of bipartisan momentum can continue, because I think it’s good for government.”
When asked if he believes it could move toward more agreement between the Democratically controlled Senate and the Republican House, he was cautiously optimistic.
“The House and the Senate, I think, traditionally have marched to their own sheet of music,” Tester said. “I think what happened last Monday night — and I don’t want to put too much emphasis on it, because it was just one meeting and it was just a moment in time — but I think what it has done this week is set an example for how you get things done, and I think the House could learn from that example.”
And, he added, something needs to change.
When asked by a person the implications of Monday’s agreement, he said he told them that right now the approval ratings for Congress are single-digit.
“And then you always ask the question who are the 9 percent that like what we’re doing?” Tester said. “Because, quite frankly, if I was asked, I would say it’s pretty dysfunctional, too.
The Senate compromise could benefit Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, he said.
“This has the opportunity to make all three parties … look like they’re working in the best interests of the country, and if we can minimize the folks who are out there saying ‘no’ to everything — and they are a minority, they are an absolute minority — then I think good things can happen, and we can start moving the country forward in a financially responsible way,” Tester said. “And, that’s what we can do in the Senate, and then we can only hope that the House is watching and does the same thing.