By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Sen. Jon Tester on Thursday asked President Donald Trump to protect public lands, exempt the Department of Veterans Affairs from the federal hiring freeze, and stay true to his pledge to clean up the nation’s capital of lobbyists and special interests.
At the president’s request, 10 senators joined Trump in a meeting that Tester described as amicable and productive. Tester, a Democrat up for re-election in 2018, said he’d work with the new administration while also holding it accountable.
“I will work with Trump where I can, and hold him accountable when I must,” Tester said in a media call after the meeting. “For most of the meeting, we talked about things we agree on. There wasn’t a lot of push back on a lot of the stuff that was out there. But the devil is in the details on a lot of these measures.”
Tester said he addressed several issues with Trump, including the president’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp.” Tester said he asked Trump to ban members of Congress and certain executive branch officials from lobbying for five years after leaving office.
Tester also asked the president to exempt front-line workers with the VA from his recent executive order calling for a freeze on hiring federal workers. The current backlog in the VA system was an issue that hurts veterans, Tester said, and additional staff is needed to address it.
“I have already successfully convinced the president to exempt front-line medical personnel at the VA from this hiring freeze,” Tester said. “Today, I told him to go a step further and exempt all Veteran Benefits Administration and Board of Veterans Appeals employees from the freeze so we can reduce the disability claims and appeals backlog.”
Tester said the president also used the time to discuss his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Tester met with Gorsuch on Monday and said he remains undecided on whether or not he’ll support him.
“He presents himself very well,” Tester said of Gorsuch. “I told the president that Mr. Gorsuch deserves a fair shake, but I will not support or oppose his nomination until I fully review his qualifications and get more feedback from Montanans.”
Tester said the meeting included six Democrats and four Republicans. While Congress is often divided by partisan issues, Tester said, they still found areas they agreed upon and will work to resolve them where they can.
“I will give Trump room to succeed and work with him when I can,” Tester said. “It was brought up by several people. You find ways to work together and build trust and get some big things done.”
Tester also touched on the administration’s “alternative facts,” saying he questioned at times where the White House was getting its information. At the same time, Tester said that several members of the administration are capable people.
“He’s got some good people in the White House,” Tester said. “(Steve) Bannon is a bit concerning – more than just a little bit. How he’s being elevated in the White House is concerning to me, as it is with others.”
While the president’s travel ban didn’t come up, Tester said the president will have to eventually work with Congress to get things done.
So far, Trump has relied heavily on executive orders, from a wall along the Mexican border to his desire to hire hundreds of new employees in Homeland Security. They all come with costs, Tester said, and it’s the job of Congress to make the final decision.
“There will be $30 billion to $40 billion in additional costs that will be accrued for some of his executive orders that apply to Homeland Security,” said Tester. “Part of the reason he brought members of Congress in today is because he realizes he can’t operate in a vacuum.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org