MISSOULA, Mont. - Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) recently participated in a Q&A with NBC Montana to discuss his take on President Trump’s recent address to Congress, Tester’s bill to check the president’s power when dealing with Russia and what changes he would like to see the president make to help Montana veterans. The following is the full, unedited dialogue:
NBC Montana: The day after (President Trump’s speech to a joint session of Congress) that many saw as conciliatory, are Democrats more optimistic about the Trump agenda and the chance of working with him?
Sen. Tester: Well I think there's certainly going to be some opportunities to work with President Trump, and I will where I can. I'll hold him accountable where I must. But, for example, making sure we have a good infrastructure bill. I think it's critically important for our economy, whether it's agriculture, main street businesses, and everything in between, they have to have good infrastructure, and broadband infrastructure is critically important. We're talking about draining the swamp. I think we ought to drain the swamp, and then some. I think lobbyist rules should not only apply to the executive branch, I've got bills to also make them apply to the legislative branch too. So there are plenty of things we can work on moving forward, and I appreciate the fact that he's opened the door to many of them. He also talked about plussing up the VA so it can pay its bills. I think I think that's also critically important moving forward -- living up to the promises that we've made our veterans.
NBC Montana: Could you see the infrastructure investment President Trump highlighted providing a boost to Montana's economy?
Sen. Tester: Absolutely. Infrastructure's one of the foundational issues that drives our economy, whether you're hauling wheat to market, or you're bringing in products from the coast to Montana, it's critically important that we have good highway infrastructure, bridges, rail infrastructure, airplane infrastructure, broadband infrastructure, and human infrastructure. So hopefully it will take in all those things and more. I think there's plenty of work that can be done on our public lands. There's certainly plenty of work that can be done on our universities to make college more affordable, and plenty of work with basic infrastructure that we're all accustomed to using every day, like highways and bridges.
NBC Montana: You introduced a bill (this week) that would prevent the president from rolling back sanctions on Russia without Congress' approval. Why is this necessary?
Sen. Tester: I think it's necessary because of the apparent cozy relationship the president has with Vladimir Putin. I think, when Russia does things like tamper with our elections, or parks a ship 30 miles off our shores to try to gather information from the United States, they bear some watching. And when they act inappropriately, we ought to throw sanctions on them. That is what was done, and I believe its congress' duty to make sure those sanctions stay on until (Russia) starts behaving appropriately.
NBC Montana: Do you expect support from Republicans on this bill?
Sen Tester: This is a bipartisan bill. We've got Rubio and Senator McCain and others on this bill, and I think it's a good bill. Democracy should not be a partisan issue. The security of this country should not be a partisan issue. I anticipate we're going to get bipartisan support for this bill.
NBC Montana: Do you think Congress is prepared to take further action like this to check the president's power?
Sen. Tester: I absolutely do. I hope that there's a bipartisan effort to either have the intelligence committee do an in-depth investigation into what happened in the last election. Or better yet, appoint a blue-ribbon commission to do exactly that with broad subpoena powers. Ultimately, when you have foreign countries that tamper with your election process, we have to get to the bottom of it. There is a number of reasons for it. It puts our democracy at risk, and if they've done it once, they've liable to do it again unless we can stop them. We need to know what they've done, in order to stop them."
NBC Montana: Do you support President Trump's pledge to increase military spending? He has said it will include spending on veterans.
Sen. Tester: Well I think sequestration has been a big problem, and it was passed six years ago, and we have cut budgets across the board because of sequestration. And so I think we need to deal with sequestration because it has impacted our military in a very negative way. It's also impacted our veterans. It's also impacted domestic programs in a very negative way. That being said, we have got to figure out where the money is going to come from, and I think that these proposals need to be paid for. I think our military does need a boost. Many of our domestic programs need a boost. I think we should look at it holistically to make sure we have a 21st century economy to hand off to our kids while we have a military that protects this country from people that want to do us harm. I think we can have the best of both worlds."
NBC Montana: What changes would you like to see the president make that would help Montana veterans?
Sen. Tester: I think there is a number of things. I think the choice program has been a wreck in Montana. I think it has been a wreck around the country. I think congress needs to do its job, and I think the president needs to encourage us to do our job to make sure the choice program is fixed. There was a hiring freeze put out a few weeks ago. That hiring freeze applied to the VA. I was able to get them to pull it off of medical personnel, but it still applies to benefits personnel. Both of those are big problems, but those hiring freezes are not helpful for the VA if we're going to make sure the appeals back log continues to drop. Finally, I think it's about getting more medical professionals on the ground. It's critically important. We've got a lot of positions with doctors and nurses where we need more folks. We need to move forward, making sure that the VA has the personnel they need, and the budget they need to be the primary provider for veterans. And then they also have to have the dollars they need to make sure that the private sector can fill in the cracks.