WASHINGTON (AP) – The $1.3 trillion spending bill Congress approved early Friday was shaped by battles over major issues like immigration, health care and defense. But one of the last disputes involved a Republican Idaho senator’s effort to prevent a wilderness area from being renamed for his state’s deceased Democratic governor.
In the end, Sen. James Risch lost. But the fight contributed to delays that left senators waiting until after midnight to approve the massive spending package, to the chagrin of some.
“It’s most like a Saturday Night Live skit,” said Sen. Clare McCaskill, D-Mo.
“That kind of fight is silly, but it comes from a ridiculously dysfunctional process,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
Risch did win sympathy from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who’s also not been shy about slowing legislation to try getting his way. Most famously, he forced a lengthy 2013 government shutdown in an unsuccessful effort to dismantle President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“Every member has the prerogative to fight for issues they care about,” Cruz told a reporter.
Buried on page 786 of the 2,232-page spending bill was a provision adding Cecil Andrus’ name to the White Clouds Wilderness, which is in Idaho’s Sawtooth and Challis National Forests. Andrus was a four-term Idaho governor who died last year.
According to lawmakers and aides from both parties, Risch was insisting on blocking the renaming. The battle played out behind the scenes, with no debate on the Senate floor but GOP leaders holding private conversations with Risch to try working something out.
Risch would not comment on the episode to reporters afterward, striding past them and brusquely saying, “I don’t have any comment.”
But an article from November 2008 about Risch’s election to the Senate in the Spokesman-Review, a newspaper in nearby Spokane, Washington, may provide a clue.
The article said that Risch battled with then-Gov. Andrus in the 1980s over education. Risch told a reporter he’d worked well with Andrus, who subsequently rebutted that.
“Worked against me is more like it,” the former governor said. “Risch is one of the most partisan people I’ve ever had to deal with. During his time in legislative leadership, cooperation across the aisle and with the governor’s office reached a new low.”
As the hours ticked by Thursday and senators impatiently waited to finish the spending bill, the Senate bowed to Risch and approved language preventing the renaming of the area after Andrus.
But the change also required approval by the House, which had already left Washington for a recess. No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas told reporters that there’d been an objection in the House to Risch’s effort, effectively scuttling it.
Risch wasn’t the only unhappy lawmaker. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., objected about the bill’s massive spending and the scant time lawmakers had to review it, while Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., complained that senators shouldn’t have to wait until midnight to vote.
“My principle responsibility is begging, pleading and cajoling,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said before the final vote. “And I’ve been in continuous discussions, shall we say, with several of our members, who were legitimately unhappy with one aspect or another.”
Congressional Correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.
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