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Tester takes gavel as Veterans Affairs Committee chair

The Daily Inter Lake - 1/29/2021

Jan. 29—U.S. Sen. Jon Tester made an appeal for bipartisanship and expressed urgency about the COVID-19 pandemic Wednesday in his first remarks as chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, a position he gained in the reorganization of the new evenly split Senate.

The Montana Democrat has had a seat on the committee since he joined the Senate in 2007. The panel provides oversight of the massive bureaucracy of the Veterans Affairs Department and the welfare of military veterans across the country, including roughly 92,000 who call Montana home.

On Wednesday, the committee held a nomination hearing for Denis McDonough, President Joe Biden's pick to lead the VA. Tester called the meeting to order, having taken the gavel from Republican Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, and in opening remarks Tester expressed appreciation for Moran and former Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican who chaired the committee until 2019.

"I appreciate this committee for all the reasons that we sit on this committee. It's been bipartisan, it's been nonpolitical, and we've tried to do the best by our veterans whether you're on the Republican side of the aisle or the Democratic side of the aisle," Tester said.

The committee, he said, will "continue to work together every way possible, and communicate together, and not surprise one another, and move forth with policies that work for this country's veterans."

IN AN interview with the Daily Inter Lake on Thursday, Tester noted Moran turned over the committee chairmanship before party leaders finalized the details of a power-sharing agreement in the 50-50 Senate, which has Vice President Kamala Harris as a potential tie-breaking vote.

"That's a class thing to do, by the way," Tester said of Moran. "I think it may be the only committee right now that did that. And it just speaks to the fact that we're all on the same page."

Whether that spirit of bipartisanship will emanate throughout the Senate remains to be seen. While the upcoming impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump promises to be divisive, the narrow partisan split can lend unusual power to any single senator — especially a moderate like Tester — putting pressure on all lawmakers to negotiate and compromise.

"I think the other committees and the Senate itself could learn a lot by the way the Veterans Affairs Committee conducts itself," Tester said.

While Tester generally supports the Senate's filibuster rule, which Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has pushed to keep in place, Tester indicated he may be open to eliminating or changing it, as some of his Democratic colleagues have demanded. Since 1975 the Senate has required at least 60 members to stop debate and move to a vote.

"I think the filibuster is something that has real benefits to bring people together," Tester said. "But I will also be honest with you, it has been abused for the last 10 years, for sure, if not longer."

Tester, who has criticized Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Matt Rosendale for objecting to the certification of Electoral College votes, said he had not spoken with either of the Montana Republicans since unfounded doubts about the presidential election motivated pro-Trump extremists to storm the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Tester said lawmakers must put politics aside to ensure something similar doesn't happen again.

"This republic, this democracy, this greatest country in the world we live in — it can be pretty fragile," he said. "So we ought not be screwing around with it."

DURING WEDNESDAY'S hearing, both Tester and Moran voiced support for McDonough, who previously served as President Barack Obama's chief of staff, and the Senate is expected to confirm McDonough as VA secretary next week.

Tester said McDonough's most urgent challenge will be addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and advocating for the VA to receive its "fair share" of vaccines. The department so far has administered at least one vaccine dose to more than 600,000 veterans and employees, and Tester said VA staff are tracking nearly 198,000 active coronavirus infections nationwide.

"And now there are more than 8,300 veteran families who are without their loved ones [due to COVID-19] including the more than 3,100 the VA has cared for within its facilities," he said.

Tester also stressed the importance of supporting frontline workers; VA employees have complained throughout the pandemic of inadequate personal protective equipment, staffing and sick pay, among other things.

"Denis, simply put, your chief responsibility during this unprecedented time will be to save as many lives as possible," Tester told McDonough.

In the interview, Tester said the VA has done "a reasonably good job" distributing the vaccine doses it has received, but it's far from enough.

"On one hand, they've done some really good things getting vaccines out to rural America," he said. "But as with everything else, we need more vaccines. We need more vaccines in the VA, we need more vaccines for the general public, we need more vaccines for the Indian Health Service. We need more vaccines, period."

Tester noted the U.S. fell far short of the federal government's goal of administering 20 million vaccine shots by the end of December. The number at the time was under 3 million. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 26 million shots had been administered as of Wednesday, and more than 4 million people, or about 1% of the U.S. population, had received two doses to become fully immunized.

"At the rate the vaccines are coming into Montana overall, if you do the math, it's going to be June of 2022 before everybody gets vaccinated," Tester said, adding he supports Biden's plan to use the Defense Production Act to accelerate the vaccine rollout.

REGARDING VETERANS' access to health care in general, Tester said the VA should add space at its own facilities, but he also supports subsidizing private providers as long as the department holds them accountable for quality care. While some have criticized what they view as efforts to "privatize" the VA, a bill called the MISSION Act, which expands access to VA-subsidized care, passed Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2018.

"I think they need to continue to build capacity because the demand is there. And then, when the VA can't provide that health care, putting it in the private sector is certainly something that is a reasonable thing to do," Tester said. "What I've told people, and what I think is undeniable, is you can outsource the health care but you can't outsource responsibility."

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or


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