HELENA — As expected, the U.S. Senate on Tuesday approved a $1.2 trillion bill to bolster the nation’s infrastructure, with Montana’s two senators splitting their votes.
Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, part of a bipartisan group of senators that negotiated the bill, was in the 69-30 majority that voted for the measure. He told Montana reporters it will be a badly needed investment in roads, bridges, water systems, airports, high-speed Internet networks and more.
“As I travel around the state, and operate (my) farm, I’m very thankful for our highway infrastructure and bridges,” he said. “We cannot take them for granted, and many of them are in disrepair.”
Republican Sen. Steve Daines voted against it, saying it increases the federal debt and is part of a reckless “tax and spend spree” by Democrats that will harm the country.
Daines pointed to the Congressional Budget Office's "scoring" of the package, that said it would increase the federal debt by $256 billion over the next 10 years. He also noted that Democrats are essentially tying passage of the bill to an additional $3.5 trillion budget plan -- which cleared an initial vote in the Senate Tuesday, moments after the infrastructure vote.
Tester said he does not believe the infrastructure bill adds to the federal debt – and that the $3.5 trillion budget resolution that advanced Tuesday will pay for itself as well. The CBO scoring did not include revenues that infrastructure-bill supporters believe will be there, to help pay for its cost, he said -- and, the scoring result wasn't unexpected.
“We got assurances that this bill is paid for," he said. "For those people who stood up and said we can’t afford this right now – well, when can we afford it?” ... I would just say, if you want to compete, you have to invest in infrastructure.”
Tester highlighted the basic infrastructure funds in the bill, but also talked about other elements, including resources to prevent or mitigate forest fires, upgrading the electrical grid and adding charging stations for electric vehicles, and reducing regulations on livestock haulers.
The measure provides a "once-in-a-century investment in our crumbling infrastructure," he said.
"(It) will make sure that we maintain our competitive edge over China., and why that’s important is that China wants to be the pre-eminent economic power in the world," Tester said. "If we don’t do things like make investment in infrastructure, they may well be able to do that.”
Elements of the bill include:
- About $2.28 billion for Montana highways over the next five years.
- Another $225 million to repair bridges in Montana.
- For Montana airports, $144 million.
- $1 billion to complete three authorized rural drinking-water projects in north-central Montana and $100 billion to repair the Milk River irrigation project.
- Some $42 billion nationwide to expand broadband for high-speed Internet into rural areas that are without it. This pool of money also includes aid to families to ensure they can afford high-speed Internet.
- About $3.4 billion to reduce wildfire risk, including money for forest thinning and removal of flammable fuels.
The measure now heads to the U.S. House, where Tester predicted it will pass sometime this fall and go to the White House for President Biden’s signature.