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Tester: U.S. Senate maneuvers kept land bills uncertain until final vote

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Shortly before the final vote, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester wasn’t sure what might happen to the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act and its tag-along Montana public lands bills.

“Now we can go celebrate and do backflips, because it’s going to the president’s desk and he’s going to sign it,” the state’s senior Democratic senator said Friday afternoon. “But an hour and half ago, there were no guarantees.

“The Senate’s a place where one person can hold stuff up.” Tester continued. “It didn’t work out for them this time. We designated wilderness in the first time in 31 years. We’ve got land management that sets it up for generations to come. We’ve done right by cabin owners. It’s a great day for the country.”

The Senate passed the $585 billion defense bill on a vote of 89-11 after several hours of procedural maneuvering by opponents. The bill included a package of 70 public lands measures, including eight affecting Montana directly. Among those was the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, which designated 67,000 acres of new wilderness along the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and put conservation protections on 208,000 more acres there.

Tester said the Senate now has to struggle through passing the $1 trillion “cromnibus” bill that funds the rest of the federal government. Its last-minute policy and spending measures have drawn lots of opposition and calls for amendment. But Tester said the Senate has little maneuvering room.

“The House has left town as of right now,” Tester said shortly after 4 p.m. Friday. “We’ve got unfinished business, and I wish we could come back to do those kind of debates.”

Final votes and speeches will probably keep the Senate in session until next week. But Tester said there was little chance that things like the Secure Rural Schools funding that contained about $20 million for Montana counties will be reinserted after House members cut it out.

“When we come back next year, it may be a standalone bill, or in a tax bill or in a number of different places,” Tester said. “PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) funding is taken care of, but we’ll have to get back to SRS.”

When Congress reconvenes in January, Tester will be a senior member of the minority party as Republicans take control. He said he’s still sorting out his committee assignments, which include being a ranking member on Indian Affairs, and seats on the Appropriations, Banking, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs committees.

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