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Tester takes helm of Senate’s defense money panel

Montana Democrat will now chair panel that controls more than half the government's discretionary budget

Tester talks with Utica resident SFC Vincent Scalise of the New York National Guard during a series of Senate votes known as "vote-a-rama" in the Capitol on Feb. 4.
Tester talks with Utica resident SFC Vincent Scalise of the New York National Guard during a series of Senate votes known as "vote-a-rama" in the Capitol on Feb. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Moderate Montana Democrat Jon Tester catapulted on Friday to the chairmanship of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

The bulky, soft-spoken former music teacher and farmer, who is instantly recognizable for his flat-top haircut, will now chair the panel that controls more than half the federal government’s discretionary budget.

“I’m honored to take on this new role that’ll give me the opportunity to better fight for our service members in Montana, across the country, and around the world,” Tester said in a statement. 

Tester, who had ranked near the middle in seniority among Democrats on the panel, now leaps ahead to replace Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., as top Democrat. Durbin is both the majority whip and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and thus could not also retain the chairmanship of the Defense subcommittee.

Tester will be busy. He will also chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and will serve on the Commerce, Banking and Indian Affairs committees. 

As the chairman of the Defense spending panel, Tester can be expected to bring a sharp focus on the needs of current and former military personnel. 

Although he has few apparent connections to the defense industry, he will now have a lead role in overseeing all military hardware and day-to-day operations too, plus the intelligence agencies’ budgets. And Montana has an interest in arguably the biggest emerging weapon debate: whether to build new land-based nuclear missiles and, if so, how many and when.

Deterrence debate

Defense contractor executives and their political action committees have not been among the big donors to Tester’s reelection campaigns, though that is likely to change as his 2024 race nears. 

And while Montana is dotted with small defense contractors, it is not the home of major private defense facilities. 

Still, Montana is already a key player in the nuclear missile debate.

The biggest Defense Department installation in Montana is Malmstrom Air Force Base, which is one of three bases responsible for the 400 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles scattered in silos across the West and the northern Great Plains.

These missiles form the land-based leg of America’s “triad” of nuclear weapons, deliverable from land, submarines or aircraft.  

Under a contract that is expected to cost about $100 billion, the Air Force has hired Northrop Grumman Corp. to develop and build 640 new missiles to replace the existing ones, with the changeover set to start around 2030. 

Progressives have a bull’s-eye on this so-called Ground Based Strategic Deterrent program as they look to reduce the defense budget.

It appears unlikely that lawmakers will do away with land-based nuclear missiles. But Congress could order that the the new missiles and their warheads be delayed and the current missiles refurbished — at a savings of $30 billion over 10 years, according to a 2018 estimate from the Congressional Budget Office. 

Or, lawmakers could buy fewer of the missiles — particularly if, as expected, the administration negotiates a new strategic arms control pact with Russia.

The new missile program was a big issue in the confirmation hearings for Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks. Austin and Hicks signaled support for keeping the triad but not necessarily for keeping the new program plan intact in all its details.

Personnel player

Tester will also now have a big say on matters pertaining to the pay and benefits of military personnel and related concerns.

On that issue, he has already been a key player. For example, he was able to secure Senate adoption last year of an amendment to the fiscal 2021 defense authorization bill that will expand benefits for veterans who say they were made sick by exposure to herbicides the military used to clear jungles.

“Frankly,” Tester said on the floor in July, “justice is long overdue for the thousands of veterans who are currently suffering and dying due to being exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.”

His amendment expands the list of diseases associated with exposure to certain herbicide agents for which there is a presumption of service connection for Vietnam War veterans. If an illness is declared connected to a person’s military service, that person gets additional benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Under Tester’s proposal, the list will now include Parkinsonism, bladder cancer, hypertension and hypothyroidism. 

“Ensuring our service members, our defense installations like Malmstrom, and intelligence agencies have the resources they need to protect us here at home and continue America’s dominance on the world stage is a solemn responsibility that I take seriously,“ Tester said in his statement Friday. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work with Republicans and Democrats to defend our country.”

Democrats will chair each of the Senate Appropriations subcommittees, but the panels’ rosters will contain an equal number of senators from each party.

The chairs of security-related Appropriations subcommittees are Dianne Feinstein of California on Energy-Water, which controls atomic weapons spending; Martin Heinrich of New Mexico for Military Construction-VA; Christopher S. Murphy of Connecticut for Homeland Security; and Chris Coons of Delaware for State-Foreign Operations.

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