Sen. Jon Tester stands by President Barack Obama on issues like health care reform and withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, but often thinks the Democratic leader doesn’t go far enough where rural Montana issues are concerned.
In an interview at the Missoulian on Friday, the first-term senator from Big Sandy said Obama didn’t stay focused enough on stimulating jobs and the economy after the financial meltdown of 2008. Passage of his Small Company Capital Formation Act in April – to help employers raise money for expansion – could have been done two years ago and sped up the recovery, he said.
Tester would not go as far as Obama on the matter of allowing gay marriage. While the president said on Wednesday he personally believes gay marriage should be allowed, Tester said he supports civil unions that allow gay people to share job benefits and visitation rights, but wouldn’t challenge the Montana Constitution’s declaration that the only valid marriage is between one man and one woman.
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“The people of Montana have decided on the gay marriage issue, and that’s the policy I will follow until it’s changed,” Tester said.
He added he believed the question was one for states to decide, and that “if it came up on a federal level, I would fight it on those grounds.”
Often criticized for supporting Obama’s health care initiative, Tester said he remains committed to holding insurance companies responsible for the costs they impose. His main objection was that the bill didn’t go far enough to control those costs.
But he doubts voters want to give up the reform act’s coverage of pre-existing conditions, removal of lifetime benefit caps and repair of the prescription medicine donut hole exclusions and “take us back to a system that’s broken.”
Congress should wait to see how the coming health insurance exchanges improve market competitiveness before trying to change or scrap the legislation, Tester said.
Rep. Denny Rehberg, the Republican House member challenging Tester for his Senate seat this November, has charged the health care bill has cut funds to Medicare and hurt business with new regulations. He supports repealing the law, which he calls “Obamacare.”
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has invested almost $3 million in statewide advertising to support Tester. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has invested nearly the same amount in favor of Rehberg, according to the national political news service Politico. Recent political polls show Tester with a slight lead in the race, although Rehberg was ahead earlier this spring.
On Friday, Tester praised the U.S. Postal Service’s postponement of threatened service cutbacks in Montana and elsewhere. He added Congress screwed up in 2006 when it forced the Postal Service to pre-pay its retirement plan without considering how it would hurt mail delivery.
But he said since then, the agency’s move to close post offices and processing centers is “the kind of thinking that means the post office won’t be around much longer.”
Instead, Tester said Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe needs to look for new ways to attract business and cut his own administrative perks. He criticized Donahoe – who he believes should be replaced – for getting close to $384,000 in salary and benefits, while cabinet secretaries of state and defense earn less than $200,000.
“It’s all been top-down decisionmaking,” Tester said. “He wasn’t going to make one iota of sacrifice at his end.”
Tester reiterated his support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline that a Canadian company wants to build through Montana and down to the Gulf of Mexico. He also announced support for another pipeline, the Bakken Crude Express Pipeline, that would move oil from North Dakota to Oklahoma. And he said he believed the Environmental Protection Agency had the regulatory muscle to ensure those drilling operations were conducted safely.
He opposed an effort co-sponsored by Rehberg to expand the Department of Homeland Security’s authority in a 100-mile buffer zone along the Canadian and Mexican borders. Tester said no one from the federal agencies involved has told him it is needed, and he can’t see how granting permission to build new security roads in wilderness and national parks is a good idea when the federal government already has a $6.8 billion backlog in roads it can’t maintain.
Instead, Tester favors better technology, such as low-level radar and border sensors that can spot illegal crossings. He also encouraged the U.S. Border Patrol and related agencies to improve their relationships with local residents, just as the Air Force has done with people living around its ICBM missile silos in central Montana. Those residents can be just as valuable as fancy equipment by keeping watch for out-of-the-ordinary activity, the senator said.
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at email@example.com.