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Senate Convenes A Rare Sunday Session To Try To Finish Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The Senate today is holding a rare Sunday session to try and get the bipartisan infrastructure bill over the finish line. It's a massive, trillion-dollar package that will have money for roads and bridges and for provisions dealing with climate change. In the U.S., this year has seen unprecedented weather extremes - intense temperatures, enormous wildfires, plus an ongoing drought. That includes Montana. May and June were the driest in the state's recorded history when, normally, they're the rainiest months. Jon Tester is the Democratic senator from Montana and himself a farmer. He is also one of the people helping to broker negotiations on infrastructure funding. I spoke with him late yesterday and asked him if he thinks a final deal is close.

JON TESTER: I think it'll pass, and I anticipate - and it's always hard to have a clear crystal ball in the United States Senate - but I think it'll get passed probably by Thursday night.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The other package is this $3.5 trillion, and that's driven by Democrats. Neither becomes law without passing the House, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she won't deal with the smaller package unless she gets the larger one. So will either actually happen, that being the case?

TESTER: I think the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package could be very good for the country, too, if it invests in things like child care and housing and senior care. But we don't know that yet because it hasn't been fully written. And when we know the details, then we'll know whether it has the ability to pass the Senate and get to the House. And I...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Would you like Nancy Pelosi, though, to then pass this one that you're working on that has bipartisan support?

TESTER: I would. I think it's good for the country. And I think this country needs an investment in infrastructure. We've been living off our parents' and grandparents' infrastructure for far too long. And the bipartisan package is the largest investment infrastructure in this country's history, and it does a lot of really good things. This isn't delivered yet. I'm not spiking the ball, but it's a big deal once we get it out of the Senate and get it over to the House.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to turn to what's in the bill. You've described climate as an infrastructure issue, and now you've helped to get an infrastructure agreement. One of the few things that has support on both sides of the aisle - how does this bill help climate change?

TESTER: Well, I think there's significant investments in roads, and I think those roads will be built in a way that will help with energy efficiency. We're moving to electric cars and buses, and I think we need to promote that. This bill does that and invests in electric vehicle charging stations, which are also very important if we're going to have electric vehicles. It is the largest transit investment ever, which - it's got $73 billion for electrical grid enhancement, which we're going to have to have if we're going to be able to support electric automobiles. And so it's not necessarily going to solve every problem that deals with our climate, but I certainly think it's a step - and a significant step - in the right direction.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's being called an appetizer by some Democrats in regards to climate, far less than was promised or they say is needed.

TESTER: Well, I mean, look. I farm in my real life, and I can tell you that we're in the middle of a horrific drought right now. This is our 44th harvest, and it is by far our worst harvest because of the drought. So I agree the climate has changed, and it has - continues to change. And we need to make proactive decisions as policymakers in Washington, D.C., to do our best to address the issue. But I would say there's no need shooting ourselves in the foot here. Get this bill done because it's a step in the right direction. Climate change is real. I think we've got a situation in the world right now where if we don't take this seriously, there's going to be a lot of hungry people because on my farm, where I normally would harvest thousands of bushel of wheat, this year, I harvested a few hundred. I feel it directly on the farm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you are the rare Democrat in a very conservative state. I'm wondering what your constituents are telling you or asking for. I mean, is there an increasing sense among some of those who may have been skeptical that climate change is an urgent threat that requires this level of investment?

TESTER: So, look. Let me tell you what they're asking for. They want roads and bridges. They want to make sure we have good broadband. They want to make sure that we have affordable child care. They want to make sure we have affordable housing. They want to - they want us to have affordable senior care. In the area of climate change, I can tell you that not a lot of people, myself included, by the way, know what we can do today that's going to make a significant difference in the near future. And I'm not sure whether there's anything we can do to make sure there's a significant difference we can make in the near future.

As far as looking out 10, 20, 30, 40 years, I think we know that carbon is an issue. I think we know we're not going to turn the spigot off today and move to non - carbonless fuels because we simply don't have it. But the bottom line is to invest money in research and development so that we can develop different kinds of energy development, to promote things like wind and solar, make those more efficient and get more of it out there available for the consumer. So we've got to make sure, as we move forward - and, by the way, this can be done - that the energy we develop is affordable for not only working families but business and industry also.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lastly, I would like to get an update on the pandemic in your state. You know, cases are surging again, like they are in much of the country, and only 44% of folks are fully vaccinated there. What next?

TESTER: I've got to tell you, the last 15 months, 16 months have not been the most joyous in my life because we've had masks. We haven't been able to go see our kids. We haven't been able to go see our parents. And it's just been a pain in the neck. And so we have a way to fix this, and it's called a vaccine that is safe, and it's effective, and it's free. And I would continue to encourage everybody out there that's listening to this, if you haven't been vaccinated or you know people who haven't been vaccinated, encourage them to go get vaccinated. If you - if they have reservations, have them talk to their doctor. Look. We're not done with this pandemic yet. And this delta variant is showing it - that this thing can blow up again. And it may not blow up the way it was a year or year and a half ago, but the bottom line is if we're going to have an economy that moves forward, that we can remain the leading economic power in the world, it's very important that people go out and get vaccinated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is Senator Jon Tester of Montana. Thank you very much.

TESTER: Pleasure to be with you, Lulu. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.