HELENA (AP) — U.S. Sen. Jon Tester returned Monday to the place where he got his political start, urging state lawmakers to focus on bipartisan solutions and telling them the biggest challenge on the federal level will be balancing the budget.
Tester is fresh off a bruising and expensive — but ultimately victorious — re-election campaign over Republican challenger Denny Rehberg. He said both sides need to put the sometimes bitter election process behind them and find common ground.
Tester built on the emerging theme of cooperation at the Legislature by urging them to put citizenship before partisanship. Republican legislative leaders have said they are hoping to hash out compromise with new Gov. Steve Bullock, who has said the same thing.
"The election is over. And now as legislators, and as Montana leaders, you have the opportunity to be advocates for Montana," Tester said. "Work together. Don't focus on division and distraction. Rather focus on those ideas that move Montana forward."
He said Congress wrongly flirted with disaster when it faced the fiscal cliff because both sides insisted on idealism and not realism. The Democrat reiterated his support for a plan that both cuts spending and increases revenue, which would almost certainly require bipartisan support.
"In Washington and here in Helena, we can't afford to let brinksmanship replace statesmanship," Tester said. "The fiscal problems that face our country at the federal level can and must be addressed. It is our biggest challenge. Cutting spending and increasing revenue will be necessary if we are going to solve our budgetary woes."
Tester also bashed the influx of money that dominated his race and others this past election cycle, and said the so-called "dark money" needs to be reined in at both the federal and state level.
"Outside groups, on both sides, spent tens of millions of dollars with little transparency and no accountability," Tester said.
The Democrat received a cool response from the Republican side of the aisle by saying he supports efforts to overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that ruled a ban on corporate spending in federal elections was an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.
State Sen. Fred Thomas, who is returning this year to a chamber he left back when Tester was in the state Senate, said Tester brought up a "sensitive, partisan issue" by raising Citizens United. Many Republicans, as Rehberg stated many times during the election battle, feel it protects freedom of speech.
But Thomas, from Stevensville, said Tester was "dead-on" by calling both sides to work together cooperatively for solutions. And Thomas said he was glad to hear Tester, like U.S. Sen. Max Baucus did last week, make a point of saying Washington, D.C., needs to do the same.
"Our advice along those lines is you guys really need to drop the barriers and get the work done back there because this country is going off the ledge financially," Thomas said. "Boy, they need to do that more than ever. Time is of the essence."
Tester also called on the lawmakers to act on smart implementation of federal health care reform "whether you love it or hate it," to pass legislation to improve the state infrastructure needs such as is seen in the developing oil fields, and to improve education funding.
"No one person has all the answers," Tester said. "But all of you together do have the answers. And working together, you'll find them. It's not just a challenge. It's a responsibility."