JOHN YANG: The battle lines are being drawn for the 2024 presidential campaign with Republicans leaning in on education and social issues.
And Democrats focusing on abortion rights and Medicare.
Lisa Desjardins spoke with Montana's Democratic Senator Jon Tester about some of the looming fights ahead.
LISA DESJARDINS: Critical junctures are fast approaching on spending the national debt, the military and the next national election.
And playing a role in all of them is the senior senator from Montana Democrat Jon Tester.
Senator Tester, thanks for joining us.
Let's start with the nation's money problem.
Just this week, a key Republican on Budget Matters said that the market should be ready for a possible plunge this summer because of a potential standoff over the national debt.
You're an appropriator?
What's your level of concern about this?
JON TESTER: Well, look, when you start talking about the debt, and I'm and I'm very concerned, because that's really playing with fire and could drive our economy into depression really, really quickly if we don't pay our debts.
Look, the debt is very serious business.
And we should sit down and have a bipartisan group, with government and non-government folks get together and put forth some recommendations after they study the topic about how we can get our debt under control, using common sense, rather than political talking points.
And I think if we're able to do that, we can set the country on a very secure path for economic growth and get our debt under control.
But if we're going to continue to use the debt as a political football, depending on who's in power, and when they're in power, I don't think we'll ever come to a solution on the issue.
I think it can be done.
But we have to remove politics from this equation.
LISA DESJARDINS: As for specific ideas, Republicans when spending cuts, and you are one of the people who controls the purse strings, do you think Congress should cut federal budget this year?
And in particular, on defense, which is the subcommittee you oversee?
JON TESTER: Look, I think everybody should be open to take a look at their own shop and make a determination whether there are things we can cut, but the fact of the matter is this.
What are you going to cut, and how you're going to cut it?
We know that China is a pacing threat.
We've seen what militarily and economically.
We've seen what Russia has done with Ukraine.
We know that Iran and North Korea are bad actors out there that want to do us harm.
And so from a military standpoint, what do you want to cut?
Because the truth is, is that I think making sure we have a strong military is really important.
LISA DESJARDINS: Another long term problem is the border.
And you put out this tweet, saying that you are sick and tired of lip service and President Biden must do more.
What do you want to happen?
JON TESTER: So I think President Biden must do more, I think Congress must do more too.
I don't think it's all on the administration or the administration plays a big role.
From my perspective, it's more technology, it's more manpower, guess what?
Those both cost money.
And if we're going to do it, that's what it takes.
If we're going to secure a border, that is what it's going to take.
We got some great technology companies out there that can determine what's happening on our, on our borders, they can determine what's coming across in our ports.
But those technologies cost money.
And it costs money to share and distribute the information that comes off of those technologies.
And everybody knows we need more manpower on the southern border.
And I would say the northern border, too, as far as that goes.
And so those are the solutions, I do think it is a serious problem.
And the administration needs to do more.
LISA DESJARDINS: And I'd hear Republicans are still pushing is that have some kind of border barrier?
Sometimes they call it a wall?
Do you think that Congress should fund more border barriers?
JON TESTER: I think there are points on the southern border where a physical barrier makes perfect sense.
I think a wall from sea to shining sea is not a very smart idea.
I think it's a gross waste of money.
And I don't think it will last the test of time.
But there are some points in our border, where a physical barrier absolutely can provide some protection.
And those are the areas we should look at.
LISA DESJARDINS: You're saying you want more than we have now?
JON TESTER: Yes, I mean, look, I would say that but I would leave that to the professionals that were on the border to make that determination, where it's most effective.
LISA DESJARDINS: But they know that you are in charge of the funding.
JON TESTER: Yes, that's right.
But they have to make the presentation and say this is what we need.
This is why we need it.
And then I can make the decision whether we need to find it or not.
LISA DESJARDINS: You are also pushing hard to correct what you see as a major problem for some veterans.
A group of combat veterans who were retired because of their injuries in the military now cannot receive both disability and their retirement pay.
You want to change that why?
JON TESTER: So this is called the Major Richard Star Act.
And this is a situation where a personal surgeon or military gets injured while they're on the job in the military and it forces them to retire because of their disability.
I think it's only fair that those folks get retirement and disability pay.
Their ability to earn income has been severely altered and they've been forced out of the military because of their injury.
I just think it's the right thing to do.
We have an all volunteer military.
We want folks to sign up.
We have to live up to our end of the agreement.
And I think passing the Major Richard Star Act, would live up to our end of the agreement where when people get hurt in their service to this country, and are forced to retire out of the military, that they get concurrent receipts goes, disability, and retirement.
LISA DESJARDINS: This country is still so divided.
And this week, of course, we saw a lot of news and discussion about January 6.
I want to ask you, where do you think we are in terms of the tension around falsehoods and just as a country in this divided time.
JON TESTER: I think the country is incredibly divided right now.
I think that that division puts our democracy at risk like we've never seen it before.
In my lifetime, at least, I was here on January 6, I saw what happened.
I didn't even fully understand what was happening while I was watching people storming the Capitol.
But in the end, it was about our elections, which are fundamental to our democracy.
And if we've got folks out there that can overthrow our elections based on false information, we got big problems.
We have an incredible system of free speech and free religion and Second Amendment rights.
And we've got folks out there that want to destroy that.
And I don't think they really think they're destroying it.
But in fact, they are.
Because when you undermine our elections, you're undermining our democracy, and you're putting it at risk.
LISA DESJARDINS: During this exact time, is when you have decided to run for reelection, even though you have a huge political target on your back.
Republicans want your seat.
There will be a lot of attack ads against you.
And I know, you'd probably rather be on your farm than with those ads.
Why are you running again and did other senators like say Senator Schumer asked you to do it?
JON TESTER: Look, Lisa, I am a farmer here exactly right.
I bring that dirt under your fingernails perspective to Washington, DC, and Montana common sense.
And I just think we need that in Washington, DC.
We need somebody who's going to fight for rural America.
We need somebody who's going to fight for our veterans, for a strong defense for main street businesses.
And I think I bring that skill set to the table.
I had a number of my colleagues that I like, and they like me asked me to come back.
But the truth is a decision was really made by my family by my wife, my kids, my grandkids, and for the good of the country, quite frankly.
I think that the division also had an impact on my decision.
I think it's important we try to bring this country together.
And it's important that we move on so our kids and our grandkids can have a great quality of life and the same kind of opportunities that my parents and grandparents gave me.
LISA DESJARDINS: Senator Jon Tester Montana, thank you.
JON TESTER: Appreciate the visit with the Lisa, thank you.