Sen. Jon Tester takes defense appropriations gavel

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WASHINGTON ― Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester will chair the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee, handing new clout over the defense budget to a state with nuclear weapons interests.

Tester, a political moderate and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, has served in the Senate since 2007. The move, announced Friday, gives Tester a powerful new platform to advocate for Montana’s military installations, including at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, his office said.

“Ensuring our service members, our defense installations like Malmstrom, and intelligence agencies have the resources they need to protect us here at home and continue America’s dominance on the world stage is a solemn responsibility that I take seriously” Tester said in a statement Friday. “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and get to work with Republicans and Democrats to defend our country.”

It also elevates Tester in a brewing fight over the replacement for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile, known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent. The Air Force plans for the GBSD, being built by Northrop Grumman, to replace the Minuteman III at Malmstrom. And while progressives have pushed to cut the program, Tester has been an advocate.

The Pentagon estimates it will cost $100 billion to build the weapon, which will be ready to use around 2029 ― and arms control advocates are hopeful talks between the United States and Russia could lead to proposals to Congress to further reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

”Tester will have to contend with the reality that the massive cost to buy a new ICBM system will divert resources from other Air Force and Pentagon priorities,” said the Arms Control Association’s director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, Kingston Reif, adding: “Sustaining an ICBM force at less cost and in fewer numbers than currently planned is entirely consistent with maintaining a safe, secure, and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent.”

Tester has been an advocate for nuclear modernization funding, the replacement of the Air Force’s UH-1N Huey with the Boeing-made MH-139 Grey Wolf, as well as the Lockheed Martin-made C-130, flown by the Montana Air National Guard ‘s 120th Airlift Wing, stationed in Great Falls.

Montana is a state with few parochial interests when it comes to defense. It ranks 47th in defense revenue by state, according to government data, and its largest defense contractor is the low-profile S&K Technologies, a global professional services company that’s tribally owned and based in St. Ignatius.

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That’s a marked shift from the chairmanship of Alabama Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, whose state gets 7 percent of its gross domestic product from defense spending and is home to more than 300 aerospace and defense companies. Shelby will serve as the ranking member on the Appropriations committee, now chaired by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and the defense subpanel, opposite Tester.

New power-sharing rules from Senate Democrats sparked a broader realignment on the committee, with nine new leaders on the 12 subcommittees. Sen. Richard Durbin, who served as the subpanel’s top Democrat, agreed to forgo the defense gavel so he could assume the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee and remain Democratic whip. Leahy was blocked from continuing as chairman of the State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee; and Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., replaced Jon Tester as top Democrat on the homeland security subpanel.

Tester took over as chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee earlier this year, and has been an influential figure on veterans policy issues for the last decade.

During last year’s debate on the annual defense authorization bill, he was part of a group that successfully lobbied to include new presumptive benefits for Vietnam veterans sickened by Agent Orange exposure during that war — a significant and costly (about $8 billion over 10 years) add-on to the military policy measure.

He has spoken in the past about the connections between the departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense in ensuring lifelong care and support for troops, and has enjoyed a cordial relationship with senators on the veterans panel, including past Chairman (now ranking member) Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas.

The homeland security subcommittee, where Tester previously served, holds jurisdiction over homeland and border security, cybersecurity, the Transportation Safety Administration and the Coast Guard.

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