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Tester, Daines vote with parties on COVID-19 package

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | March 9, 2021 3:43 PM

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester says the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package his chamber passed over the weekend will give Montana families, businesses and health-care workers the boost they need to survive through the end of the pandemic.

The bill, dubbed the American Rescue Plan, passed the evenly divided Senate on a party-line vote Saturday. It's the third package of federal relief and stimulus measures aimed at reviving the pandemic-battered economy.

"The bottom line is that this package will allow us to get this virus under control, get folks back to work, fully reopen our schools and reopen our economy," Tester said during a call with reporters Tuesday, shortly after the bill was transmitted back to the House. It's expected to reach President Joe Biden's desk after a final vote Wednesday.

It includes $1,400 direct payments for those making less than $75,000 a year, additional support for families with children and huge amounts of funding for vaccine distribution, schools, businesses, hospitals, transit agencies and local, state and tribal governments. It also extends $300-a-week federal jobless benefits into September and extends the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses.

The Senate also added Tester's proposal to provide up to $166 million to reinstate furloughed Amtrak employees and restore daily service on the carrier's long-distance passenger routes, including the Empire Builder that serves Montana's Hi-Line communities. A massive drop in ridership due to the pandemic prompted Amtrak to cut service on most of its long-distance routes to just three days a week in October.

The bill will not increase the federal minimum wage. Biden and progressives in Congress have pledged to raise it to $15, but the Senate parliamentarian determined the increase could not be included in the COVID-19 package under the chamber's rules. On Friday, Tester and seven other moderates voted against Sen. Bernie Sanders' effort to disregard the parliamentarian's ruling.

"I've supported an increase in the minimum wage many times because I think it is not where it needs to be," Tester said Tuesday. But it wasn't worth stalling COVID-19 relief, he said. "I thought the bill was too important — to Montanans in particular and the country as a whole — to kill the bill."

Republicans have criticized Democrats for pushing the relief package through the Senate using budget reconciliation — a process that requires only a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes — and say Biden hasn't lived up to his campaign promise of promoting "unity" and working across the aisle.

In a statement, Montana Sen. Steve Daines said he voted "against wasting over $1 trillion of taxpayer money on liberal wish list priorities … disguised as COVID relief."

"Shoveling all this money into an economy that is on the rebound is deeply irresponsible and will cause our debt to soar to new heights," he said. "Its partisanship is exceeded only by its recklessness. Montana taxpayers deserve better."

Democrats say it's hard to take such calls for fiscal restraint seriously after Republicans passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which is projected to add about $1.9 trillion to the national debt by 2028. Daines and 51 other Republican senators passed the tax bill using budget reconciliation in 2017.

Tester, who called for more targeted relief in the last COVID-19 package, did not point to any specific programs when asked Tuesday whether he believes anything in the current package is overkill.

"If I would have written it, there would have been some changes in it, no doubt about it," Tester said, adding the legislative process involves negotiations and compromise. "I think this bill is a pretty damn good bill, overall. I think now the challenge is making sure that we have the right oversight and we hold people accountable as all these dollars go out."

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com