030914 Jon Tester

Jon Tester

ELIZA WILEY/Independent Record

While Congress has a ton of work awaiting its return from campaign season, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester believes how President Barack Obama deals with threats of war could overshadow the coming months.

“His presidency won’t be defined by the economy or health care,” the Montana Democrat said of Obama’s administration. “It will be determined by the Middle East. How he fixes it and how he pays for it will determine if he’s a failure or success as president.”

In a Monday meeting with the Missoulian editorial board, Tester added he’s been frustrated so far in his efforts to learn more about the administration’s plans. U.S. military forces are seeing increased involvement in Syria’s civil war and the Islamic State insurgency in Iraq, while still trying to work out an end-game in Afghanistan.

“I need somebody to tell me what we’re doing here,” Tester said. “Nobody’s asking about who’s paying for this war. How are we going to vet the Syrians we’re training? What’s their true allegiance? Who’s in the coalition with us? A lot of folks are saying, ‘We’ll be right behind you.’ They need to be right beside us. But when I asked who’s in the coalition, all I got was a ‘We’ll get back to you.’ ”

Tester said the president should not rely on the 2003 congressional authorization for military force, and instead should ask Congress for a new approval, including what spending limits were proposed, who would be involved, and how the United States would choose who to support among the several rebel fighting groups. And he said he was not willing to support such an authorization until those questions have been addressed.

But he was not sure when that discussion might happen. While Tester supported having the debate sooner than later, he said many congressional leaders appeared to prefer waiting until after the November elections to open the discussion.

But they recently spent just one day debating spending $500 million to train 100,000 Syrian resistance fighters, while taking almost six days to argue about lowering interest rates on federal student loans.

“It’s going to cost taxpayer dollars to buy those (interest) loan rates down,” Tester said. “Not a tax increase, but different priorities.”

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Helping students afford college with lower debt would improve Montana’s economy by making it more affordable to find work close to home, Tester said. He also said the state’s university system had a big opportunity to direct its research powers at finding better ways to burn coal and capture its pollution in response to the Environmental Protection Agency’s new air quality standards.

“Those EPA regulations are a push to industry to get better,” he said. “When we brought on mercury and sulphur regulations to control acid rain, we achieved those rather quickly. If I was the industry, I’d push back, too, but I don’t think these (regulations) are unreasonable. China’s standards are even more stringent and they’re aimed at 2020.”

Tester also touted his Forest Jobs and Recreation Act as a way to improve the state’s economy, both in its timber and tourism industries. The bill, which cleared the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in December on a bipartisan vote, would authorize about 637,000 acres of new wilderness and 360,000 acres of recreation areas allowing some motorized or commercial use in Montana, along with more than 100,000 acres of timber harvest and treatment on U.S. Forest Service lands.

He refuted the criticism of some wilderness advocates that his bill inspired Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Washington, to move the Restoring Healthy Forests and Health Communities Act, which mandates setting harvest quotas on every national forest in the country.

“With FJRA, for cutting some trees you get wilderness, and there’s no wilderness in the Hastings bill,” Tester said. “And FJRA still lets the Forest Service make the calls on where to cut. That’s not Congress doing Forest Service management. To get to 100,000 acres – we could do that just treating the WUI (wildland-urban interface around communities and homes).”

Tester maintained his bill’s compromise between industry, recreation and wilderness represents the best way to get something through Congress, as opposed to demanding single-issue bills that keep those groups from cooperating with one another. The bill has not been scheduled for any Senate floor vote, but that could change.

“It depends on what kind of a lame-duck (post-election congressional session) we have,” Tester said. “We’ll be looking for opportunities.”

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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