Montana’s Jon Tester talks filibuster changes, means testing for Biden spending plan

By: - January 5, 2022 3:51 pm

President Joe Biden talks to Sen. Jon Tester after speaking alongside a bipartisan group of Senators after the group reached a deal on an infrastructure package at the White House on June 24, 2021 in Washington, DC. Biden said both sides made compromises on the nearly $1 trillion infrastructure bill. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

Despite his role at the center of passing the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in 2021, U.S. Sen Jon Tester said Wednesday the Senate should change its filibuster rules to break what he called “real paralysis.”

The Montana Democrat also said in an interview with States Newsroom that watching how the infrastructure money is spent — and ensuring it happens quickly — will be a priority for him this year.

The other major plank of President Joe Biden’s agenda is a $1.9 trillion social services and climate bill that appeared to die just before the holidays when West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin III said he opposed it. Tester said the package could still be salvaged by requiring that social programs included in it ensure only the neediest gain benefits — means testing.

On other major legislation, Tester favors a change to the filibuster, the legislative procedure that requires 60 votes to advance bills in the Senate, rather than a simple majority that he has long defended. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said this week that Democrats in the Senate will debate and consider rules changes if Republicans continue to block voting rights legislation.

Tester said the Senate should require “a talking filibuster,” where senators actually hold the floor and continue speaking, instead of merely threatening it, to block the majority’s agenda.

That position doesn’t go as far as some of his Democratic colleagues, who have advocated for removing the 60-vote threshold altogether, but could still leave Tester, whose state backed Donald Trump over Biden by 16 percentage points, open to GOP accusations that he’s changed his view.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell’s office sent reporters a lengthy list Wednesday of Democrats defending the filibuster, including Tester saying removing it would be a mistake.

In the interview, which has been edited for clarity, Tester explained his middle ground on the filibuster, how the spending bill could be changed to win moderates’ support and what the attack on the U.S. Capitol means a year later.

States Newsroom: We are speaking on Jan. 5, almost a year to the day from the Capitol riot. What are your reflections on that event as we approach the anniversary?

Jon Tester: It was an incredibly difficult day for this country. I think it showed that democracy is something that we need to value and make sure we continue to fight for it. I think that it showed our enemies that we certainly are vulnerable to domestic terrorism.

And I think that it’s something that we need to learn from to make sure it never happens again.

SN: Do you think your colleagues share that view? To me, it seems like maybe things have gotten worse and more polarized and maybe moved away from a brief moment of unity. What do you think?

JT: I don’t know that they’ve gotten worse. But people certainly haven’t come together like I’d hoped they would. But there’s plenty of reasons for that that we can probably do a complete article on.

But the bottom line is that we’ve got to understand that what happened on the sixth of January was a direct affront to our democracy, and we’ve just got to ensure that that kind of stuff doesn’t ever happen again.

SN: When we spoke a year ago, you said Congress should focus on getting people back to work, and getting people vaccinated was part of that. How do you evaluate that a year later?

JT: Well, the fact that we passed the rescue plan (the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief law signed in March) to ensure that businesses and schools could reopen and that our economy could help bounce back and start creating jobs. I think if you look at our economy right now, it is doing rather well.

And I think that with the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure package, that also added to more good jobs being created and lowering costs. So, I think that we did pretty well, quite frankly.

SN: You were part of that core group that wrote the infrastructure law and negotiated it in the Senate. What was that process like?

JT: Overall, in hindsight, it was a very positive experience. Had the chance to work with nine other folks, five Republicans and four other Democrats, and get to know them much better than I had before. And got to experience success from the standpoint of getting a pretty good piece of legislation across the finish line and getting it to the president’s desk that quite frankly will help this country as a whole, including rural America.

And I think we’re just starting to see the impacts of that as we’re seeing money start to head out the door.

Moving into this next year, for sure one of my big challenges is going to be just make sure that we’re doing the oversight necessary to make sure that these dollars get out the door on implementation of the bipartisan infrastructure package as quickly and responsibly as possible.

SN: And how do you do that? How do you perform that oversight role?

JT: Well, (former New Orleans Mayor) Mitch Landrieu has been appointed the point person on this, and so our conversation on him and the different Cabinet secretaries — whether it’s Transportation or Commerce or whatever it might be, Veterans (Affairs) — to make sure that we’re doing what we need to do, and that they’re doing what they need to do, to make sure that the money’s being spent appropriately.

SN: Are there lessons to be learned from sort of how you all were able to put this legislation together? Is this a success that can be repeated, in other words?

JT: Oh, for sure, it can be repeated. What transpired in this particular case is leadership on both sides of the aisle gave us the room to work. And because of that, we were able to come up with a piece of legislation that I think is pretty darn good.

SN: Another big piece of legislation is the Build Back Better Act. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re not a firm yes on the House-passed version. What do you think ends up happening with that after Sen. Manchin’s statement opposing the bill last month?

JT: I think there’s a possibility of getting a bill done in the United States Senate that quite frankly continues to work on cutting taxes and lowering costs for Montana families and reducing the cost of prescription drugs.

There will be multiple opportunities to have other visits with Manchin and me and (Sen. Mark) Warner (a Virginia Democrat), and a number of other people who think that we can get this bill in better shape and move it forward. And I look forward to that opportunity, that challenge.

And like I said, in the end, if the thing’s done right, and we do address things like child care and housing and climate, senior care — and I think we can do it in a fiscally responsible way — I think that’s a winner for our economy and a winner for our country.

SN: When you say getting the bill in better shape, do you mean fiscally responsible?

JT: There’s some things that a number of us have been talking about, like means testing. I think that will help make the money be spent more efficiently and better.

I’ve been talking about research and development when it comes to climate. I think it’s really important that we really invest in not only carbon sequestration and how we make nuclear waste more benign, to increasing our ability for battery technology and affordability for battery technology.

I think all those things can happen. But it’s going to take some negotiations, and I don’t think that this bill is — I think we got some more work to do on it. But I think we can get a bill that’s pretty darn good for the American people.

SN: So for you, it’s not the topline price tag number, but how efficiently is the money being used?

JT: How the money is spent is much more important than the topline number.

SN: What is going on with the filibuster? What’s your position?

JT: I have always been a defender of the filibuster. I think it helps bring people together. But I also didn’t get elected to do nothing.

And I think that what we have now is we’ve got a situation where the filibuster’s been weaponized and used on nearly every bill. And what we end up with is a real paralysis here in Washington, D.C., and I think our country deserves better.

So my point is, if you take this same filibuster and move it back 40 years, it was used seldom, if ever. Even 20 years, it was used seldom.

Now it’s used all the time. So I think we’ve probably gotten to a point where — and it isn’t because of the rules, it’s because of the people — we’re going to probably have to modify them if we’re going to get important pieces of legislation done.

SN: Modify them how?

JT: Restore it back to the days of the talking filibuster, so you still have a filibuster, but people have to talk. They can’t put a hold on a bill and then walk out the door and go home, which is what they can do now.

They have to hold the floor. And if they don’t hold the floor, they have the vote. That’s what needs to happen.

SN: Should there be a carve out for voting rights, or would the talking filibuster take care of that as well?

JT: I believe the talking filibuster would take care of that.

I know there are some conversations going on about a carve out, but I would like to see the rules change so that the talking filibuster is put back in place like it was in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” I think that would help the functionality of this place, and help make this place more bipartisan, and I think it would help hold people accountable.

SN: Anything else you want to mention before we go?

JT: We’ve still got a lot of work to do on the VA [Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which Tester chairs]. Some of it’s on oversight.

Making sure that the John Scott Hannon Mental Health bill gets implemented correctly.

Some of it is on our toxic exposure bill, which is out of committee but we need to get to the floor.

We’ve got a lot of work to do there.

I will also say I look forward to getting the appropriations bills done, hopefully by the end of February. It’s important, especially important for our military.

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Jacob Fischler
Jacob Fischler

Jacob covers federal policy as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Based in Oregon, he focuses on Western issues. His coverage areas include climate, energy development, public lands and infrastructure.