Larry Craig

Here's a look at future of Craig's agenda

In this file photo, Sen. Larry Craig takes part in a Senate Environment and Public Works hearing in Washington.
In this file photo, Sen. Larry Craig takes part in a Senate Environment and Public Works hearing in Washington. Dennis Cook/AP

If U.S. Sen. Larry Craig steps down at the end of this week, it would leave some of his agenda for Idaho and the nation in limbo.

The contacts and clout Craig developed over 27 years won't be replaced soon, and that means Idaho won't have as much influence over federal decisions.

What's at stake? Decisions on everything from fish and dams to burying forgotten veterans.

Idaho Power Co. hopes to complete relicensing of its three Hells Canyon dams on the Snake River by the end of President Bush's term. Craig won't be around to encourage federal agencies, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, to speed up deliberations.

Craig singlehandedly kept the Bureau of Land Management from moving top managers at Boise's National Interagency Fire Center to Washington in 2005. And he and Rep. Mike Simpson were able to get through Congress in one day the agreement that resolved the Nez Perce Tribe's water rights to the Snake River.

Craig said this month he could leave the Senate if he can't clear his name and restore his ability to work in Washington. His staff has said that part of their job in preparing for Craig's possible resignation was to make sure Idaho's priorities in Congress don't suffer.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo said he doesn't know whether Craig will finish his term, which ends in January 2009, or resign Sept. 30 or later. But Crapo has been working with various committee and subcommittee chairmen to protect Idaho's interests, both short- and long-term, no matter which choice Craig makes.

"I'm stepping in to be sure no balls are dropped and that all of Idaho's programs and projects are protected," Crapo said.

Here are some of the initiatives, and the people who would have to fill in:

Immigration

Craig and farm leaders hoped to pass the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act — known as AgJOBS — this fall as part of the 2007 Farm Bill.

The bill would make it easier for farmers to hire guest workers and provide longtime illegal workers with a process to become legal and stay in the country.

But Craig and his co-sponsor, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, already were facing opposition from conservative Republicans who helped kill the legislation when it was as part of a comprehensive immigration package.

What could happen: Four Republicans who are usually Craig allies have offered a rival bill that would expand guest-worker programs but eliminate the process to allow illegal workers to stay in the country. Feinstein will remain the main sponsor of the bill if Craig leaves, which will make it harder to pick up GOP votes.

Veterans

Craig was the main co-sponsor of the Veterans Dignified Burial Assistance Act of 2007. The bill provides federal assistance to states to locate and bury lost or unclaimed remains or ashes of veterans.

What could happen: Unless someone steps in, the fate of the bill is in limbo.

Mining reform

Craig has long been the main defender of the mining industry against reform measures he said would cripple domestic mining and send companies overseas.

Rep. Nick Rahall, Craig's major nemesis on the issue, is now chairman of the House Resources Committee and has vowed to pass a reform bill this year. But the key player in the debate is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. That powerful Democrat and Craig share similar views about what reform makes sense — minimal royalties on metals and other materials, and an end to "permanent patenting," which transfers public land to mining companies so that it can't be converted into recreation or residential development later.

What could happen: Industry leaders are confident Reid can prevent passage of a bill they don't like, said Jack Lyman, executive vice president of the Idaho Mining Association.

Salmon and dams

Craig has been perhaps the strongest voice in defense of dams, the Bonneville Power Administration and Idaho irrigators in the salmon debate.

He also has been the major defender of Idaho water.

Craig had inserted language into an appropriations bill, apparently to protect Idaho water and the Nez Perce Agreement, which set a limit on how much water could be taken from Idaho reservoirs to improve salmon migration conditions downstream.

Salmon advocates have asked Congress to pull the provision when it gets to the floor. Crapo has yet to even support the provision, let alone champion it. How the rider actually protects Idaho's water is not clear.

What could happen: In the next year and a half, federal Judge James Redden is expected to rule on new biological opinions on the Snake in Idaho and downstream in Washington and Oregon.

Crapo shares Craig's views on keeping as much water as possible in federal reservoirs in Idaho rather than have it flushed downstream to aid salmon migration. But Crapo has often been a critic of the BPA. That means downstream Democrats, presumably Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, will become the major defenders of the public power system.

Forest county payments

In 2000, Craig co-sponsored a law with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden to provide funding for roads and schools to formerly timber-dependent communities. Craig and Wyden went different ways this year, with Craig willing only to push for just one more year of funding.

What could happen: Craig and Wyden's long-term bills were very different, and the fate of both of them is in doubt. If nothing passes, some Idaho counties could lose millions of dollars.

Idaho National Laboratory.

Craig was the major sponsor of a project that would fund a new research reactor at the INL.

Crapo, from Idaho Falls, is expected to fill Craig's leadership position on the INL in the Senate. Craig and Rep. Mike Simpson had great success getting hundreds of millions of dollars for lab programs and research.

What could happen: Many INL programs are now a regular part of the budget. The lab now has a good base to compete for many of its programs on its own now, said John Revire, Simpson's deputy chief of staff.

"The INL is a very vibrant institution," said Revire.

Idaho universities

All three Idaho universities also benefited from Craig's skillful role on the Appropriations Committee, Revire said.

What could happen: Inevitably, appropriations to Idaho State, Boise State and the University of Idaho will drop. But they, too, now have the capacity to compete successfully for federal funds on their own, Revire said.

But the University of Idaho, which benefited the most, could face the deepest cuts.

Wilderness

Craig was at best neutral about two Idaho wilderness bills in Congress.

Congress is still considering Crapo's bill to protect wilderness and ranchers in Owyhee County and Simpson's bill to protect wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds and aid local communities and ranchers.

What could happen: The departure of Craig, a longtime wilderness opponent, may improve the chances for both bills.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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