Laura Lundquist 

(Missoula Current) In the aftermath of the midterm elections, Sen. Jon Tester is focused on passing a few more bills before the lame-duck session of Congress ends. Among them are bills to address the fentanyl epidemic and fund the military in 2023.

During a Montana press call Thursday, Tester said he is supporting bills to shut down fentanyl trafficking before the drug gets into the U.S. because fentanyl use has spiked in Montana over the past five years.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. When prescribed appropriately, it can help patients with severe pain.

But some drug dealers are mixing fentanyl with other drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and even marijuana. Since it takes very little to produce a high, fentanyl is a cheaper option. But it’s also more dangerous because it’s so easy to overdose and people often don’t know their drugs are laced with it.

In late September, Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., introduced the Securing America’s Borders against Fentanyl Act, and Tester jumped on as a cosponsor along with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. The bill would provide $20 million for the Department of Homeland Security and related agencies to research and develop technologies and strategies to target and detect fentanyl and counterfeit pills before they enter the U.S. A companion bill was introduced in the House in July.

Tester is also cosponsoring the PREVENT Act, introduced by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, intended to protect border patrol and other law enforcement officers who have to handle confiscated drugs like fentanyl. 

For example, about a week ago, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in El Paso, Texas, discovered and confiscated 21 bundles containing 26 pounds of methamphetamine and four containing 10 pounds of fentanyl in a car driven by a U.S. citizen trying to cross the Mexico border. 

To reduce the risk of accidental exposure to narcotics and toxins, the bill directs the Dept. of Homeland Security to buy containment boxes for drug storage and to train officers on how to use them.

“This isn’t a red or blue issue – this is an American issue, and I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to get these bills passed and keep our law enforcement officers, our state and our nation safe,” Tester said. “It’s not going to be easy. These guys are still able to get it through because of the demand. Make no mistake about it, once we get the southern border firmed up, they’ll be coming across the northern border. So, we’ve also got work to do on educating people so we can reduce the demand.”

As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Tester said he’s working on passing a Fiscal Year 2023 budget that includes funding for up-to-date equipment and training for the military. It’s still being worked on, but Tester said the defense budget will probably be more than $50 billion.

“The amount isn’t really what’s important – it's how the money is spent that’s important,” Tester said. “In ‘23-’24, I don’t think you’re going to see these kinds of increases we’re seeing right now. There’s no way it’s sustainable. That said, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on our capacity to build things like Javalins and even submarines and airplanes.”

In April, the U.S. sent the first $100 million worth of Javalin anti-armor systems to Ukraine. More weapons followed – about $12.5 billion worth - but much of it came out of U.S. military stores, which need to be replaced. 

In September, about $1.2 billion in contracts were signed to replenish U.S. military stocks, according to Bill LaPlante, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. That includes about $352 million in funding for replacement Javelin missiles, $624 million for replacement Stinger missiles, and $33 million for replacement HIMARS rocket launcher systems.

Supply chains and inflation are still affecting the defense industry, but Tester is concerned that inflation could be used as a private industry excuse to increase prices beyond what is really needed. With such a large budget, Congress needs to be diligent in its oversight, Tester said.

Two weeks ago, Tester traveled to Europe to oversee Department of Defense activities, to assess the needs of Ukraine, and meet with officials in Germany, Lithuania, Poland, and Denmark. 

“Those countries see Russia as a real threat. They see them - if he’s successful in Ukraine – potentially moving into their countries and they don’t want that. They love freedom and they want to be like us,” Tester said. “So, as we work on the omnibus bill, due out the 16th of December, we need to keep the Ukraine effort in mind, because it’s an effort worth supporting. Does that mean we write them a blank check? No. It means we appropriate money and make sure it’s being used for the right reasons, whether it’s militarily or for humanitarian needs.”

Tester said he also met with the Finnish delegation this week to talk about their desire to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 

“As I told them, this becomes more of a deterrent to Putin, having them a part of NATO, because Finland has a 830-mile border with Russia. Sweden is the other one that wants in, and these folks have been neutral forever. Now, they see the threat of Putin being real and they want to be a part of NATO.” 

After the midterm election, the Democrats were able to hold on to the majority in the Senate. Having served since 2007, Tester now sits near the top quarter of seniority in the Senate. As such, Tester said he would continue to serve in the leadership roles he held during this Congress.

“I’ll still be the chair of Veterans, which by the way has the second largest budget, and the chair of Defense appropriations, which has the largest budget. I’ve got pretty damn good committees,” Tester said.

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