HELENA — Montana’s two U.S. senators – one Democrat, one Republican – hailed the “peaceful transfer of power” that they attended Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol, as President Joe Biden was inaugurated, amidst a heavy presence of security.
But Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines said they’re still waiting to see what the power-sharing agreement will be in the 50-50 Senate – and whether cooperation will overshadow partisan disagreement on Biden’s agenda.
“Hopefully folks will treat him like he treats us,” said Tester, a Democrat who’s likely to become chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “(Biden) said he was going to be transparent, honest, and he was going to tell the truth to us, and I think we need to do the same thing for him.
“And I think if that were to happen, that means we’re going to be working together and getting things done.”
On the first day of Biden’s presidency, however, Daines, a Republican, said he already has concerns about elements of the president’s agenda, on energy and Covid-19 relief.
Daines said he’s “very disappointed” that Biden chose to revoke the Keystone XL Pipeline’s permit as one of his first acts as president. The proposed pipeline, to transport oil from the Canadian tar sands in Alberta, would cross the northeastern corner of Montana.
He also said that Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief proposal is a “price-tag we can’t afford,” after the government already has spent $4 trillion on Covid-19 aid.
“I think we need to wait and see what happens here with the economy,” Daines said. “We just passed another $900 billion package here, just weeks ago.”
Daines said he may pursue a bill to overturn the president’s action on the Keystone pipeline.
Tester said he’s been supportive of Keystone, as long as its developers don’t trample on the rights on landowners and Indian tribes, but that it’s not the only pipeline that can transport oil over the U.S.-Canadian border.
And, he said he found it ironic that Republicans may suddenly be talking fiscal discipline, as soon as a Democratic president takes office and proposes spending to help a battered economy.
Biden’s Covid-19 bill should be examined in Senate committees, he said, to see if it’s the right approach – but Tester said now is not the time for the federal government to practice austerity, with millions of Americans and businesses on the economic precipice.
“If you want to make sure the economy never comes back? Starve it -- don’t put in any money from the federal government,” Tester said. “If you want to make sure that those small businesses, those bars, those restaurants, those hotels, are out of business, then don’t support it. … That is not what we need to do.”
Tester said the No. 1 priority for the country and the federal government is to “get this pandemic behind us,” and that includes increasing the distribution of vaccines.
Support for small businesses and people hurt by the pandemic should be next in line, he said, followed by spending on infrastructure – roads, railroads, airports, water, sewer and broadband.
He also said with a 50-50 Senate, the two partisan sides will have to work together to accomplish things, and that he’s hopeful that can happen. “There are great people on both sides of the aisle who just want to work together and get things done,” Tester said. “We just gotta do it.”
Daines and Tester also remarked on the election, and the belief of some that Biden didn’t legitimately defeat Donald Trump on Nov. 3.
“At some point in time, you can’t keep repeating a lie,” Tester said. “The truth is, Joe Biden is the president of the United States and he was duly elected to that position, and that’s how democracies work. …
“We have great election workers throughout our state of Montana and throughout this country, who worked hard to make sure every vote was counted, and they were.”
Daines was among 13 U.S. senators who initially planned to support challenges to vote counts, on Jan. 6, in closely decided states where Biden won, saying there were multiple allegations of voter fraud.
Daines changed his mind after the Capitol was assaulted by pro-Trump rioters, as Congress voted to accept the election results on Jan. 6.
On Wednesday, Daines said his challenge was never about overturning the election results, but rather to debunk some of the false conspiracy theories being floated about the vote-counts in competitive states.
“We’ve got to move forward here and restore confidence, with the American people … back into the electoral process and elections in general,” he said. “It’s time to move forward. And we saw, today, an important step forward, where you had Republicans and Democrats honoring this tradition we’ve had … and that’s this peaceful transfer of power.”