A lot of things can go haywire when Congress tries to pass an omnibus spending bill at the last minute.
But Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch raised a lot of eyebrows, and plenty of ire, when he decided to risk blowing up the spending bill to wage a political battle.
The battle he chose? Preventing the renaming of 90,769-acres of Central Idaho wilderness the Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness. Andrus died in August.
Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson had added to the legislation a provision to honor Idaho’s renowned Democratic governor. And Risch did not like this at all.
The showdown, which began unfolding late Thursday night, quickly spread across social media and online as reporters covering the Senate vote tried to figure out why a deceased governor from Idaho was stalling things.
“There was, however, a brief drama that threatened to keep the chamber from voting when Senator James Risch, an Idaho Republican, objected that one of the provisions in the massive piece of legislation renamed a wilderness preserve in his state for Cecil Andrus, a Democratic governor of Idaho and secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. Andrus, who died last year, and Risch were political rivals,” reported Bloomberg Politics.
CNN reported: “As to what, in an old political rivalry, could’ve led to such a visceral response by Risch, aides in both parties were still trying to figure out what had occurred. At one point, a 2008 profile of Risch’s political rise began circulating that recounted Risch’s time as the majority leader in the Idaho state senate when Andrus, who died last year, was governor. The Idaho Statesman profile noted Risch ‘clashed with Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, particularly over education funding in the 1980s.’ ”
Once Washington, D.C., political reporters and political gadflies following the debacle on Twitter figured out who Risch and Andrus were and that Idaho has forests and mountains, they had some stuff to say.
“When someone inevitably asks me one day what it was like to cover Congress, the story of Jim Risch holding up an omnibus vote at midnight over the naming of a forest after a political enemy will be the first thing I remember,” tweeted Washington Examiner reporter Al Weaver.
After Risch went into a side room with Senate leadership, the dust settled, the Senate got back to its business and the bill passed.
So what about Andrus’ wilderness?
“Congressman Simpson is monitoring the situation and will continue to make sure the White Clouds wilderness is named after Gov. Andrus,” Nikki Wallace, Simpson’s spokesperson, told the Statesman.
The most recent national news reports indicate that he might still get his wilderness, but Risch succeeded in stripping the renaming provision from the bill that passed – and then denied comment, according to a Washington Post story.
“No. What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand? . . . Do I have a problem with my English? I don’t have any comment,” Risch told reporters outside the Senate floor.
Roll Call reported that Risch “would not allow a unanimous consent request to speed up a final vote on the $1.3 trillion omnibus without assurances from the House that it would take up his fix.”
“But the House is not expected to accept the omnibus correction from Risch, according to Republican senators familiar with the conversations. As such, Simpson appears likely to prevail in the renaming battle,” Roll Call stated.
Otter and Andrus
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, a Republican, served as lieutenant governor during Andrus’ last two terms as Idaho’s chief executive, after Andrus returned from being Carter’s Interior secretary.
During Andrus’ lying-in-state ceremony at the state Capitol on Aug. 31, 2017, Otter addressed the crowd and spoke of friendship with Andrus and cross-party cooperation.
“I want to talk for a minute about what made Cece so special in the context of today’s bitter partisan ideological divides,” he said.
“People who knew me from my maverick days in the Legislature and a decade earlier figured there would be quite a train wreck with a political odd couple like Andrus and Otter in the Statehouse. It is true we had our differences. We had contrasting political styles. He was more polished and strategic. I was in need of what Cece would constantly call ‘new training wheels.’ ”
In 1990, Andrus and Otter were each re-elected to a second term.
“We had 21 Republicans and 21 Democrats in the Senate,” Otter said. “Folks were having a field day with that because I had the tiebreaker and he had the veto stamp. But there was no train wreck, and the big public blowups people had predicted simply did not happen, because this Republican and that Democrat decided long before that we were going to do what was best for Idaho.”
Otter continued, “A lot of folks now in Washington, D.C., and right here in this building could take a lesson from Cecil Andrus.”
But on Friday, Otter had very little to say about the fact that Risch made himself and Idaho a national punchline by holding up the federal budget because of a decades-old feud.
“I am not going to comment because they were both great friends of mine,” Otter said in a statement.
Reporter Rocky Barker contributed.