Tester and Daines: The art of compromise in Washington, D.C., isn’t dead

Sens. Steve Daines, right, and Jon Tester sit side by side at a recent event in Missoula. Both lawmakers have worked across party lines over the past year in an effort to compromise on key pieces of legislation. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When members of a conference committee buckled down this month to pass a new spending bill with measures to enhance border security, they achieved a task President Donald Trump panned as having a 50-50 chance of success.

At about the same time, Congress passed a public lands package with measures included by Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines to reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and withdraw areas north of Yellowstone National Park from mining.

The art of compromise, it turns out, may not be dead after all.

“It’s possible, and we’ve seen that most recently,” Daines told the Missoula Current. “The public lands bill passed 92-8. This border security package was a compromise amid a very divided government. Compromise is possible. No doubt it’s more challenging in this environment.”

Daines and Tester each reflected on the challenges of bipartisanship last week during the renaming of the Missoula VA clinic in David Thatcher’s honor, a measure that also required an act of cross-aisle legislation.

While addressing the audience, Daines said, “To get something like this done, it requires Republicans and Democrats to set aside party labels and focus on doing the right thing.”

Daines later said that extends to a wide range of issues. The people of Montana sent their elected officials to Washington to “move the ball down the field” and “do something to get results,” he said.

“It’s about trust. It’s about relationships. It’s about respect,” Daines said. “We can disagree about the issues, but if you lose the personal respect and trust, you’ll find it very difficult.”

While the outside appearance of a divided government that struggles to achieve simple tasks may not be off the mark, there are those on the inside working to “break the logjam,” as Tester put it.

In late January, GovTrack named Daines as one of the most efficient members of the U.S. Senate and recognized him for “having the most bipartisan bills and resolutions” among the sophomore class elected to Congress in 2014.

To highlight his bipartisan efforts, Daines pointed to his newfound partnership with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, on a bill to lower health insurance costs.

“That’s two different worlds we’re living in – that’s (Sen.) Bernie Sanders’ state,” Daines said. “But we’re working together on a reform of health insurance to lower costs and break through some of the antitrust issues that we have today. It’s Leahy-Daines. It shows you it’s possible.”

Sen. Jon Tester was one of three Democrats appointed to the seven-member Senate conference committee that saw Congress strike a bipartisan deal on border security and spending. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Tester also has bucked the party line over the years, establishing something of a blue-dog reputation for working across the aisle to achieve results.

He went against the party vote in November 2017 when he struck a deal with Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, to relax U.S. banking regulations, and he’s worked closely with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, in moving legislation through the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Tester was also one of three Democrats appointed to the seven-member Senate conference committee that saw Congress strike a bipartisan deal on border security and spending. That was achieved after the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, even while the president gave the committee “less than 50-50 odds” of striking a deal.

“I think it absolutely can be done when people come together,” Tester said of compromise. “If you take a look at what the conference committee did, those are Democrats, Republicans, House members and Senate members who came together and wanted to come up with a solution that worked for the country.”

Tester, who unseated incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns in 2006, believes most lawmakers in Washington are working for the greater good. It’s a minority of congressional members who bog down the system, or “instead of disagreeing without being disagreeable, they work to screw things up.”

“I had a number of bills at the end of this last Congress held up by one person that didn’t even know what he was holding up, he just wanted to screw things up,” Tester said. “We’ve got to do better than that. I think maybe this conference committee set a really good example of how you work together and get things accomplished.”

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, agreed on the point, telling Tester the conference committee’s vote might be enough to “break the logjam.”

“There are a lot of people who think failure is a win, but failure is not a win,” Tester said. “It never has been a win and it never will be a win and the American people deserve better than that.”

Tester added that Congress deserves an honest debate on tough issues, from infrastructure to climate change. Debate is healthy, he said, but stubborn opposition is not.

“The only way you get things done is if you get people communicating and want to come up with solutions,” he said. “There’s far too many people in Washington, D.C., who don’t want to have solutions. They want to have government fail. The American people deserve better than that.”