In the first day of Congress after the 2012 election, re-elected Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., saw action on some of his bills.
Tuesday the Senate passed Tester’s bill to give a cost-of-living increase for veterans benefits and voted 95-2 to debate a wide-ranging bill he drafted on sportsmen’s issues, the first bill brought up when the body reconvened.
That bill has received opposition from an animal rights group over allowing hunters to retrieve polar bear carcasses from Canada, but Tester said Tuesday the bill would help hunters and recreationists as well as helping the nation.
“Sportsmen and women across Montana and the nation are calling for responsible decisions that strengthen our outdoor economy and secure our outdoor heritage for future generations, ” he said in a release after the vote on debating the bill. “This measure does just that, taking good ideas from Republicans and Democrats to protect our hunting and fishing traditions and safeguard our most treasured places. I will keep pushing to get it across the finish line. ”
Tester’s veterans bill matches the cost-of-living increase for Social Security benefits, increasing the amount paid out to nearly four million veterans and their families in several veterans’ benefits, including disability compensation and survivor benefits for spouses and children.
Tester’s Sportsmen’s Act received high profile coverage when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., scheduled it as the last item for a vote before Congress recessed before the election. Some called it an election-year ploy to give press to Tester, who was in a closely contested race against U. S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., who challenged the senator in his bid for a second term.
Tester defeated Rehberg 235,806-217,762, with Libertarian Dan Cox receiving 31,854 votes.
The bill, which Tester touts as bringing together a number of proposals from the House and Senate, proposed by both Democrats and Republicans, also has received attention because of the polar bears. That provision was part of a House bill passed in April sponsored by Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida.
Tester’s bill requires the secretary of the interior to grant permits for Americans to import the carcasses of polar bears if the bears were hunted before the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the animal a threatened species in 2008. Tester said in September after the Senate voted to bring his bill to the floor that the bill allows hunters to bring back trophies that have been in cold storage since 2008 or earlier.
But the Humane Society of the United States sent a letter to the Senate urging opposition to the bill, saying the hunters rushed to harvest the bears knowing full well that the import ban was about to go into effect. Allowing the importation encourages hunters to kill animals in other countries knowing the importation of the trophies is banned, with the hope they will receive a special allowance, the Humane Society argues in a 23-page report saying the protection of polar bears must continue and that Tester’s bill must be opposed.
But, Tester spokesperson Andrea Helling said Tuesday, the bill does not create new hunting, it just allows bringing back animals that have been in Canadian freezers for at least four years.
“This isn’t setting up any new type of hunting, ” she said. “This is simply allowing folks who harvested polar bears legally in Canada while it was still legal there to bring them into the United States. ”
Helling pointed out that 46 organizations — ranging from National Rifle Association and the Boone and Crockett Club to the Nature Conservancy and the Wildlife Management Institute — have endorsed the bill, sending a letter to the Senate Nov. 1 urging its passage.
“(The Humane Society members) are a vast minority of folks who have (weighed in) on this bill, ” she said.
The bill — which Tester says also will reduce the nation’s deficit by $5 million to $7 million, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates — covers a variety of areas including conservation efforts, setting aside funds from the Land and Water Conservation Fund to increase public land access, reauthorizing the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and funding new shooting ranges.