LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Republicans say they want the new tax legislation to be on President Trump's desk by Christmas. The Senate bill still needs to be reconciled with what passed the House, but Republicans have taken a big step towards giving President Trump his first legislative victory. Senate Democrats couldn't stop the bill, so they took to social media with their protest.
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JON TESTER: Here's the bill as it's written. Here's the modifications that are in it. I can read one word. It's called add this language. Can you tell me what that word is? If you can you've got better eyes than me.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That was Senator Jon Tester, of Montana, registering his complaints on Twitter. And he's with me now in the studio. Good morning, sir.
TESTER: Good morning. It's good to be with you.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many Democratic senators like yourself objected to getting a nearly 500-page bill immediately before voting on it. It seems easy, though, to seize on those optics. What are your complaints about what's in the legislation now that you've had a chance to see it?
TESTER: Lulu, here we are, you know, 36 hours after the fact, and we still don't know everything that's in the bill. And so that's part of my complaint - is the process is severely broken. You make good decisions if you have good information. We weren't given the opportunity to determine what in that bill was good and what in that bill was bad.
Although I will tell you that my staff has told me that that bill will add a trillion and a half dollars to the debt of this country that our kids and our grandkids are going to have to pay off, which is, I think, very, very unfortunate and one of the reasons that we should have been given the time to take a bill and get public input and work to get bipartisan support because there were at least 17 of us, maybe more, Democrats that were willing to work with the Republicans to get a good bill. We were never given that opportunity, unfortunately.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sir, I mean, there were opportunities to work. There was an amendment, championed by Republican senators Marco Rubio and Mike Lee, to increase the child tax credit for low-income families. You voted against that. Why?
TESTER: Because there was an amendment right before that amendment, championed by Michael Bennet that actually was a better amendment, that made that tax credit permanent, that allowed for the tax credits to go to folks that made up to $250,000 and not $500,000 and really was an amendment that could have worked and worked well and give predictability to the tax code. That is why. There were better options out there, and Democrats were never brought into the equation to get their ideas. Nor was the public, I might add. And that's why this bill is that bad.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why do you think this vote went differently than the repeated attempts by Republicans to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act? Did your party employ a successful strategy on this issue - on that issue and fail here?
TESTER: Well, no. I mean, I think that when you're in a minority you have to fight and try to get your thoughts put on paper. That did not happen here. And I think it was that way because of very, very poor leadership in the United States Senate. And I think that the last time we had a bill, 30 years ago, it passed 97 to 3. It was a bipartisan bill.
They held hearing after hearing after hearing for that bill. This bill did not have a hearing - had two committee markups, basically to kick it out of committee but never had a hearing in committee. And, you know, we're the greatest deliberative body in the world, the United States Senate. But yet we continue to cheapen the process by what happened with this tax bill and, I might add, by the health care bills, too.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, right now the economy's doing well. Unemployment is low. These are indicators that matter to average people. Is it hard to get traction on taxes when it seems complicated - the corporate rate, the pass-through, you know, entities, SALT - state and local taxes - it's all very confusing.
TESTER: It is. It's very, very complicated. And that's why, on an issue such as this, that the last time we addressed was 30 years ago, that it's important to get public input to see how these proposals impact middle-class families, businesses, everybody. And that was never given. Look, I was one of the people that they could have got to vote for this bill. I wrote letters asking that - listen to my input, rural America's input on what this tax bill should look like. What I heard from the other side was crickets.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: If there's not a budget agreement - I'd like to turn to that because I think that's the next looming battle - the government may shut down next week. We have about 30 seconds. What's your strategy there?
TESTER: Well, I don't believe it is smart to have a government shutdown. And so I would hope that we're not put in a position where we have a bill that has a bunch of - ornaments on the Christmas tree kind of bill that will muddy the water. I think we need to get a bill that's clean and keep the government going. I think the impacts of a shutdown of the government are very, very negative, and it's bad, bad, bad governing if that were to happen.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana. Thank you so much for joining us.
TESTER: Great to be here. Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.