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Sen. Jon Tester on COVID relief, minimum wage and Biden’s Cabinet nominees

With the Senate evenly split 50-50, moderate senators have become key to getting President Biden's COVID bill passed and his Cabinet nominees approved. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana, joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And with the Senate evenly split 50/50, moderate senators have become key to getting the president's COVID bill passed and his Cabinet nominees approved.

    A short time ago, I spoke with one of those lawmakers. He's Democrat Jon Tester of Montana.

    Senator Jon Tester, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let's start by asking you about President Biden's COVID economic relief plan.

    It looks as if pretty much all the Republicans are opposed. What do you think needs to be done to it to make sure that all 50 Democrats in Senate are on board?

  • Sen. Jon Tester:

    Well, look, I think that — I think the Democrats are on board with the package. I think there are some modifications that can be made to the $1.9 trillion package in terms of accountability.

    But, in the end, I think this package is needed. It's needed to get vaccines in people's arms. It's needed to help businesses that have really been hit hard by this pandemic. It's important for the working folks who can't find a job.

    And it's important for education, because distance learning and in-person learning at the same time, which is happening in many places in this country, costs a lot of money. So, I think the package is a good package. I think it's a needed package.

    Chairman Powell, the head of the Federal Reserve, was in front of Banking yesterday, and talked about the fact that we needed this to push the economy forward. So, I think we're going to get all Democrats.

    I think, if the changes are made, then it's probably going to be around accountability. And I certainly don't have any problem with that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You have said, Senator, in the past that you think the aid should be more targeted toward people at the lower end of the income scale. Is it sufficiently targeted now?

  • Jon Tester:

    Well, I think it is.

    I mean, I think after talking with the experts, I think it's fine. And I think, moving forward, I think there is a possibility we could come out of this economic downturn that we're in now in really good fashion, because I think there's a lot of pent-up demand.

    And so, just moving forward, I think we ought to keep that in mind. We certainly need the package now. Maybe in six months, we need to take another look and see if the money is still being spent in a wise fashion. But in the end, I think that those dollars going to those working families, I think they're really important. And, hopefully, we can — we can give them the support they need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, another part of the plan that's getting a lot of attention, of course, is the president's proposal to raise the minimum wage, federal wage, $15 an hour.

    You have said that you think this needs to be modified by states, by regions. What do you think the minimum wage should be?

  • Jon Tester:

    Well, look, I have supported a minimum wage increase in the past. And I think that the debate we're going to have on the minimum wage, if it ends up in the package by the way — and we still don't know if the parliamentarian is going to see it pass the Byrd bath or not.

    But if it ends up — let's say it ends up in the package. Well, then I think we need to figure out how it's going to be implemented and in what manner. I think — my opinion is, is, this impacts small business in a very big way. They have been impacted by the coronavirus and the pandemic in a very big way.

    So, I think the minimum wage needs to come up. But I think we need to extend it out a ways before it hits the $15 figure. How long that time frame is, is going to be up for debate, and I look forward to having that debate.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there an amount you have in mind where it should start, I mean, a base level?

  • Jon Tester:

    Yes, I mean, look, it's — I'm pretty flexible, and I'm pretty workable on this, but 10, 11 buck an hour as a base level and then moving from there would be — seem to be reasonable for me.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it sounds like you're a hard no on $15 an hour.

  • Jon Tester:

    Well, I don't think it's going to be $15 an hour implemented tomorrow, even if it is in the bill.

    I think that there will be plenty of debate on how this gets implemented moving forward. I think there is some merit to bringing the minimum wage up.

    I think we have just got to be careful, so we don't put our small business in a bad situation. And Montana is a small business state. We need to make sure that our small businesses continue to grow and move forward. But we also need to make sure that folks are getting a fair wage for the work that they perform.

    And that's really the crux of it all, walking that line, trying to find the sweet spot, so both can happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator, I also want to ask you about President Biden's nominees for his Cabinet.

    Most of them seem to be moving through smoothly. A few, though, are running into opposition, in particular, the nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden. You have said you know her, you support her.

    But, as you know, Republicans are being — they're saying they don't like the nomination. Even a Democrat is saying he won't vote for her. The Republican argument, that she's been too partisan, too negative in her tweets, what do you make of that argument? Some people say Republicans are being hypocritical, because of what went down the last few years.

  • Jon Tester:

    Look, I think it's a double standard.

    There are plenty of nominees from the Trump administration that I supported that, quite frankly, said a lot of really bad things. And if you're going to use that as your reason not to confirm people, I think it's important you try to stay consistent and think back of what you did with some of the nominees that President Trump put forth.

    And I want to tell you, I worked with Neera Tanden. I think she is a good person. She speaks her mind. I kind of like that. I like to know where people stand. And I hope she gets confirmed, because I think she deserves to be confirmed. I think she's a talented lady that will do a marvelous job at OMB.

    And, hopefully, some people will change their minds and we will get her confirmed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, at this point, do you think she will be confirmed? I mean, how concerned should the White House be?

  • Jon Tester:

    Well, I think they should be concerned, and I think they should be trying to work this nomination as much as they can.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One other question, Senator, and that is, Republicans in the Senate, their willingness to work with this new president, how would you characterize that right now? Do you think he has the right approach to working with them?

  • Jon Tester:

    Well, look, Joe Biden is a creature of the United States Senate, and I like Joe a lot. And I think Joe's going to reach his hand out across the aisle as much as he possibly can.

    Joe also knows that this country has some things that have to be done. That's why he put forth the $1.9 trillion package. And I applaud him for his leadership. And he's been there since the — since he was sworn in on the 20th of January.

    And he is going to try to get folks to work with him. In the end, he understands that we have got to get some things done, and we will do what we need to do to get things done. In the end, it's going to have to work out for the country, and I think Joe's priorities are right.

    But just as with everybody, Judy, we're going to be giving him input, constructive criticism when we don't agree, and try to move him in a direction that works for both the state and — for Montana and the country as a whole.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Jon Tester of Montana, very good to see you again. Thank you so much.

  • Jon Tester:

    Judy, it's a pleasure. Thank you.

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