Continental Divides

Unsuitable Time for Political Jockeying

Announcing in February his bid for a fourth term in Congress, Montana’s senior senator explains that he’s finally “in a position now where we can actually get some things done"

By John McCaslin

With weighty issues piled on his plate, Sen. Jon Tester doesn’t care to digress into his much-anticipated 2024 race for reelection, although at such a crucial juncture for the nation, and Montana in particular, he concedes his would be big boots to fill.

Announcing in February his bid for a fourth term in Congress, Montana’s senior senator explains to this columnist that he’s finally “in a position now where we can actually get some things done.”

“That stuff doesn’t happen right now with a freshman senator,” reasons the plainspoken Democrat, referring to his ultimate but still unknown Republican opponent.

“Quite frankly, we worked hard before – we got plenty of stuff done before – but now people are starting to pay attention.”

And not just Montanans who since 2007 have witnessed Tester segue from folksy president of the Montana State Senate to formidable U.S. senator, albeit markedly to the right of his Democratic colleagues and barely one to tow his party line. He’s demonstrated he’s beholden to no one but his constituents, arguably in sharp contrast to the Montana GOP delegation led by Sen. Steve Daines — since November chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, devoted to electing prospective and current Republicans to win back the Senate majority — that is hell bent on taking him out. It won’t be easy.

During the previous administration, the Montana Democrat voted with President Trump’s position more than 30 percent of the time, while aligning almost half of the time with conservative economic policy. Most recently, as powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Tester was first in line to “hold Biden administration officials accountable” for that “damn balloon.”

“I’ve got a problem with a Chinese balloon flying over my state, much less the rest of the country,” the Big Sandy farmer scolded the Pentagon brass he summoned to Capitol Hill, reminding them he’s been “ringing the alarm bell on Chinese aggression” and to get real answers “I will take on anyone.”

Did he get them?

“Well, the jury’s still out on that,” he tells me. “I will tell you the president’s budget came out a month or so ago and it has about $90 million in it for detecting and if need be eliminating the balloon issue itself, along with many, many, many other things that the Chinese are doing …

“I’m not completely sold on what [the Pentagon’s] doing yet,” he continues, “but we did get their attention and I think they’re moving in the right direction.”

Another military fiasco landing on the chairman’s current radar surrounds the 21-year-old Massachusetts Air National guardsman accused of leaking highly classified military documents on social media.

“The guy’s in big trouble right now,” assures Tester, who is responsible for crafting the annual appropriations bill funding the entire Department of Defense. “I think that it’s important people pay a penalty when they do stupid stuff. But I also think it’s important that the people within the military are held accountable.”

Similarly, a member of the Homeland Security subcommittee, Tester earlier this year teamed up with Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota in introducing legislation to ban foreign adversaries like China from acquiring American farmland and agribusiness, a threat he’s “very worried” about.

“Food production, food security, is national security,” he explains. “I don’t think [America’s adversaries are] buying necessarily for food reasons, if you take a look at the proximity some of this stuff is to sensitive military bases and missile silos …

“We see what’s going on [with Russia] over in Ukraine, we see what kind of lunatic [Kim Jong Un] we have in North Korea, and we see how Iran is not contributing anything to peace in the Middle East.”

We shift to the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the largest long-term investment in infrastructure and economy in this nation’s history, signed into law 18 months ago.

Projected to create 1.5 million jobs per year over the next decade, while investing in roads, bridges, rails, airports, water systems, high-speed internet and more, I make the incomplete observation that Tester was the only member of the Montana congressional delegation to vote for the law.

“So I not only voted for it, I wrote it,” Tester clarifies, adding it’s been a game-changer for Montana given the myriad projects already underway across the state. “I wrote it with nine other people, five Republicans and four other Democrats. We negotiated that over about eight or nine months and I think it’s performing quite well …

“Now I will tell you that on an individual basis you can probably call each [Montana GOP congressional member] and they’ll say I support those projects [a Fox News poll found the law was supported by a sizable 62 percent of Americans].

“But the truth is this: they didn’t vote for it because they wanted to keep their conservative creds. And if you don’t vote for it that means you didn’t support it. And that’s just as simple as it is.”

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.