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Sen. Tester goes solo on debate date before broadcasters in Whitefish

WHITEFISH – In a wide-ranging public interview Sunday that substituted for a canceled debate, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester laid out his views on health care, energy, border security and gun violence – and jabbed Republican challenger Matt Rosendale for not attending.

“To say (you’re) going to be there and then to say `No, I’m not going to be there?’ That’s a problem,” Tester said. “Because it takes away from your credibility. …

“This was an opportunity to be able to see and hear us, and get an idea on a lot of the very same issues that we talked about here today, that I think Montanans are very concerned about. So, I think it’s very unfortunate.”

The Montana Broadcasters Association had planned to host the first debate between Tester and the winner of the June 5 Republican primary election at its annual convention in Whitefish on Sunday, and televise the event statewide.

But Rosendale, who had indicated earlier he would attend, pulled out last Monday. He said he had plans for Father’s Day and that he was disappointed that the MBA hadn’t invited two other candidates on the ballot, Libertarian Rick Breckenridge and Green Party nominee Steve Kelly.

On the day he pulled out of the MBA debate, Rosendale also challenged Tester to five debates during the campaign.

“We hope to see Tester at these five debates so he can be held accountable for abandoning his Montana values, opposing Trump’s agenda and voting in lockstep with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi,” Rosendale’s campaign spokesman, Shane Scanlon, said in a statement Sunday. “Jon Tester is trying to cause a distraction to avoid answering questions about his liberal voting record and anti-Trump agenda.”

Tester came to the MBA convention anyway. At the appointed time for the debate – 9 a.m. Sunday – he sat down for an interview with Ron Davis, the president of Butte Broadcasting, and also took questions from the audience of broadcasters.

Tester fielded questions on a broad range of topics, including:

Border security/immigration: Tester said he supports having more manpower and technology to secure the U.S. border, but criticized the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their parents when they cross the border illegally.

“A deterrent is important, but a deterrent where you rip kids away from their parents is not acceptable,” he said. “This is not something we should be doing as a nation. … We just got to figure out a better way to deter them back; that’s not America.”

Sanctuary cities: Tester said he opposes sanctuary cities, which don’t fully cooperate with federal attempts to enforce immigration laws. However, he said he has voted against bills to ban sanctuary cities because those bills also cut funding for law enforcement or economic development for those cities.

“I think (those bills) make the country less safe and I am into making the country more safe,” he said. “Every one of those sanctuary-city bills … have had a poison pill in them, and I think there was a poison pill in them intentionally, so we could have this conversation.”

Health care: The cost of health care remains unacceptably high, Tester said, and Congress could take some steps to reduce those costs, but the Republican push to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act – “Obamacare” – is not the right approach.

Going back to the “old system” of allowing insurers to refuse to cover people because of pre-existing health conditions or place limits on coverage is not a good idea, he said.

“We need to work together and come up with solutions that actually do drive down costs,” Tester said. “That was the intent of the ACA, but it didn’t achieve that. … It still needs work.

“But just to say we’re going to repeal and just take insurance away and add more instability to the system is not the direction to go, and that’s what we’ve been doing the last five years,” he added.

Veterans’ Administration secretary nominee Ronny Jackson: Tester said he asked Jackson about misconduct allegations against him in May, but that Jackson didn’t answer, so Tester made the allegations public. Jackson then withdrew his name from consideration, and President Trump and Montana Republicans attacked Tester for using flimsy evidence to defame Jackson.

Tester said he actually “saved Jackson some problems,” because Jackson would have had to answer questions about the allegations under oath, had Jackson appeared before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.

“The Constitution is clear on what the Senate does on confirmation (of presidential nominees) and vetting,” Tester said. “So, I did my job, the president didn’t like the job I did, but the Constitution is clear, and I’ll continue to do my job.”

Gun violence: Tester said he supports background checks to prevent “criminals, terrorists and those adjudicated as mentally ill” from obtaining firearms, and banning “bump stocks,” which can be used to convert a semi-automatic rifle into a machine gun-like weapon.

But he said banning any specific firearm is a “much more slippery slope,” and that he fully supports the 2nd Amendment.

Energy: Tester said coal should still be part of our energy portfolio, but that he’s not sure the federal government should be requiring utilities to buy power from nuclear and coal plants.

“I think coal can stand on its own,” he said.

But Tester also said he’s not sure that the federal government should be stepping in to overrule local actions in Washington state to block the construction of ports to export coal to the Orient.

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