Tester talks about the end of the government shutdown


January 30, 2019

Jon Tester

Friday, after five weeks, Congress was finally able to strike a deal with President Donald Trump to end the longest government shutdown in the nation's history, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said Tuesday during a telephone press conference from Washington D.C., and Tester is leading a group to keep it from happening again.

Tester, who serves as ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, said he was named the leader of the seven-person bipartisan Senate conference committee on border security Friday afternoon after the Senate voted to reopen the government.

The committee also includes Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Richard Shelby, R-Ala., John Hoeven, R-N.D., Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo.

Tester said the committee's first meeting is today and he plans to work day-in and day-out until they have the strongest budget agreement possible with bipartisan support from both the Senate and the House.

"We are starting negotiations from parts (of the discussion) where they can agree and, hopefully, check politics at the door," he said.

The government shut down from Dec. 21 to last Friday over a disagreement between

Trump and Congress over providing $5.7 billion to build a wall on the southern U.S. border.

Trump says the funding is necessary to secure the border, while the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives refused to provide that funding, saying the proposed wall is ineffective and immoral.

Tester said border security funding is nothing new to him.

As ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee, he said, he has helped to write a funding agreement in the past that had overwhelming support and passed the Senate Appropriations Committee last year.

No specific number is in mind for the amount of funding for Trump's proposed wall, he said, adding that this conference committee is basically starting from scratch.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., Tester said, has proposed a bill that will secure $5.7 billion for the wall,

although this bill has no plan or cost-benefit analysis.

Tester said what he wants to specifically look at is the technology available to help with border security, with the cost of the equipment "pennies on the dollar."

He said drugs that are coming into the country are not being brought in by people running past the border, but in trucks at border crossings. The

technology he wants to further explore, which can X-ray vehicles to detect drugs, is not being fully utilized.

His goal for the conference committee is not to fully focus on the wall but to pay for multiple items that are needed on the southern border, such as detention center beds, and an increase of the number of agents and the amount of surveillance technology.

There are many ways to get around the wall, he said. People can go under it, people can go over it and, "quite

frankly," Tester said, "with this technology they can't do that."

He said the nation has to prevent the shutdown from happening again.

This past weekend more than 7,000 federal employees in the state of Montana alone were able to get back to work and get paid, Tester said.

The unnecessary government shutdown affected many lives, created a large amount of uncertainty and "will have a lasting impact to our state," Tester said.

He added that the shutdown's end is welcome news for Montanans, such as agricultural producers who can go to the local Farm Service Agency office and get information on the new Farm Bill that recently passed.

Local economic development groups and small community financial institutions can start issuing government-backed loans to Montana's Main Street businesses again, he said.

Tester said it also means Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Border Patrol agents can go to work with the peace of mind that they are going to get the paycheck that they earned.

"The fact of the matter is that if we don't strike a long-term budget deal, we are going to end up right back where we started," Tester said.

"The temporary government funding agreement expires in less than three weeks," he added, "and the president has made it clear that he is more than willing to shut the government down again."

Tester said that with the government back in operation many things still need to be done. He added that with the FSA reopening agricultural producers will be able to start using its services again, although with the tariffs still ongoing producers may still feel a drop in the market.

Tariffs put more pressure on the Farm Bill, more pressure on the taxpayers, he said, and "makes farming a whole lot less fun."

Overseas markets are critical and have taken generations for producers to establish, he said. These markets, he added, want predictability for imports and if predictability isn't there, these markets are likely going to go to other suppliers.

He said producers operate off of a small margin and can't afford to take a big cut in market prices, and the tariffs could end immediately.

"It could end tomorrow, if in fact we had folks at the table who wanted to end it tomorrow," Tester said.

The tariffs are not only affecting ag producers, he said, but are affecting other people as well.

"We want fair trade," he said. "There is no doubt about that, but there is a better way to do it than putting family farm agriculture at risk."

He added that the 116th Congress also has other priorities, such as long-term budget deals.

"Time is of the essence," he said.

Tester said that first and foremost, he has a public lands package "ready for prime time."

This public lands package would include a gateway protection act and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund, "which is the best conservation tool that this country has had in the last 50 years," he said.

This bipartisan bill was on its way to the president's desk in December but was "derailed" by U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who blocked the bill.

Lee objected to recognition of Montana's Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians being included in the bill.

Tester and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Mont., have reintroduced the legislation to recognize the Little Shell.

Tester said the public lands bill will be among one of the first bills up for vote in the new Congress.

"We can't kick it down the road any further," he said.

He said another goal he has for the future is increase the amount of affordable housing in Montana.

Later this spring, he said, he will be working with getting state and federal officials, banks, construction workers and housing advocates together to start the process of working toward a solution to construct, restore and establish more affordable housing within the state, he said.

He said if federal laws need to be tweaked, they will tweak them. If it's utilizing tax credits for community banks and credit unions then that is the direction the nation should go, he said, adding that the goal is to have more housing inventory out there that people can afford.

Tester said this issue was first pointed out to him five years ago in Havre, where he spoke with a group of business people who told him businesses could not expand because the housing market issue prevented recruiting workers

"It's a problem that is, I think, restricting our economy, so we gotta figure out a solution," he said.

He added that a lot of work also needs to be done to lower the cost of health care, especially for rural areas like Montana, and to rebuild infrastructure, invest in new broadband and hold Veterans Affairs accountable.

Last year was one of the most successful years for passing policy in the VA Committee, he said.

"Now, we need to hold the VA accountable so that they implement things like the Missions Act (that improves access to VA health care) in the manner in which we've passed it," Tester said.


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