For several hours Thursday night, a senator’s disdain for a deceased political rival threatened to spark a government shutdown.
According to two congressional aides familiar with the dispute, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) demanded that a provision renaming the White Clouds Wilderness in central Idaho after former four-term governor Cecil D. Andrus, who died last year, be removed from a fast-moving omnibus appropriations bill.
The request generated all sorts complications as Senate leaders sought to clear the 2,232-page $1.3 trillion spending bill ahead of a Friday night government shutdown deadline. Among them: changing the bill would require a House vote, as well — many hours after the House passed the bill and members left Washington for a two-week recess.
Aides to Risch did not respond to a message seeking comment on his objections. Risch would not comment outside the Senate chamber early Friday morning: “What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?” he said. “Do I have a problem with my English? I don’t have any comment.”
The renaming provision passed the House in February in a bill sponsored by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), who is chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water and thus in prime position to insert pet provisions into the must-pass omnibus bill. As governor, Andrus fought to prevent the opening of an open-pit molybdenum mine in the White Cloud Mountains and served as interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter.
It is unclear why Risch was not informed or did not know about the renaming until Thursday, when it was effectively too late to change the bill. Aides to Simpson did not respond to a request for comment. Typically provisions included in appropriations bills are heavily vetted by both parties as they move through Congress. But this bill’s progress was especially rapid: It was filed at 8 p.m. Thursday and passed by the House 17 hours later.
The complete dimensions of the animus between Risch and Andrus could not be fully ascertained early Friday morning. But a 2008 story in the Spokane Spokesman-Review recounted that the two men clashed over education funding in the 1980s.
“Risch is one of the most partisan people I’ve ever had to deal with,” Andrus is quoted as saying. “During his time in legislative leadership, cooperation across the aisle and with the governor’s office reached a new low.”
Simpson held a fonder view of the late governor: “Governor Andrus meant so much, to so many in Idaho,” he said in a Feb. 14 statement marking House passage of the renaming. “It is only fitting that this iconic land in Idaho is forever tied to the man who dedicated his public service to protecting it.”
As Risch pressed for the removal of the renaming, Senate GOP leaders increased pressure to drop his objection. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called up a bill to undo the provision, even though House passage would also be necessary to make the change. Then McConnell called all senators to the chamber’s floor in an apparent attempt to clear the roadblock. As Risch sat at his desk, multiple senators surrounded him trying to find a way around the objection.
Risch later followed McConnell, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) into Cornyn’s office for a 25-minute meeting. Shortly before midnight, Risch left and walked onto the Senate floor without saying a word to reporters. Cornyn later said that no change would be made to remove the renaming language.
Moments later, McConnell set up votes on final passage of the spending bill — but not before Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) raised one last objection, demanding to know why the votes couldn’t wait for the morning. He had been roused from bed to return to the Capitol and vote.
McConnell asked for forbearance: “My principal responsibility,” he said, “is begging, pleading and cajoling.” Risch remained silent.
Risch, 74, is expected to succeed Corker as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In that position, he will maintain key relationships with foreign leaders and have oversight of U.S. diplomacy.
Several of his colleagues were not impressed by the late-night antics Thursday. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said that in her 12 years as a senator, it was “the most like a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit” that she has seen in the Capitol.
Erica Werner contributed to this report.