When President Trump asks Republicans for a vote on something, Sen. Jim Risch normally offers his support. But when it comes to the budget … well, that’s another story.
Risch was one of 28 Senators opposing the bipartisan budget bill backed by Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Call it the “Miracle on Pennsylvania Avenue,” since Trump and Pelosi can’t agree on the color of grass. But they managed to join forces on a two-year budget package that will end the drama, or threats, of government shutdowns.
Sure, it will add a trillion or two to the national debt. But they’re rich old people in their 70s, so what do they care? All that matters is they received overwhelming support from both houses of Congress.
Risch, who also is in his 70s, does care. He and Congressman Russ Fulcher voted against the budget bill, while Sen. Mike Crapo and Congressman Mike Simpson – two young whippersnappers in their 60s – voted for it. So, who was right? Call it a draw.
“There’s no good vote here,” Risch told me. “It’s always difficult when there’s no good vote, and only bad votes. I went with the one that I thought was the least bad.”
On the plus side of this “bad” bill, Congress wasn’t going to see anything better with Trump and Pelosi backing it. But Risch says he won’t vote for a budget package that doesn’t get a grip on spending.
“If there was a good-faith effort to do something, I’m all in,” Risch says. “But there isn’t anything being done. Not only that, but people aren’t talking about it and there aren’t even possible plans to attack it. People are brain dead on the subject.”
Risch’s vote does not signal a rift with the president, or with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – far from it. “I talk with him (Trump) frequently and he hasn’t said one word to me about this bill.”
The Idaho senator is on opposite sides of McConnell on budget issues; it’s been that way for 11 years. “I’m representing Idaho and my own conservative view,” Risch says. “What they do in spending here is outrageous. Most Americans don’t have a clue that the government is going in the hole $1.25 billion every day, and there’s no effort being made to turn it around.”
And, he said, nothing will be done substantially unless Congress attacks Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – entitlements that cover about three-fourths of the budget.
“Medicare and Medicaid are the elephants in the room,” Fulcher told me. “When you start talking about pulling away benefits, that’s seen as a death knell here.”
And a sure formula for losing the next election.
Going against the president’s wishes is not easy, Fulcher says, “but I’m not here representing the president. I here representing Idaho and I’m confident that a majority of people in the First District would have done the same thing.”
Simpson says the budget deal isn’t the one he would have negotiated, but it was the best that could be produced in a divided government.
“I am pleased to support President Trump and his agenda,” Simpson said. “With this agreement … we remove the Democrats’ threat of recklessly cutting our defense budget. It will also allow us to finish our constitutional duty of funding the government in fiscal year 2020.”
Crapo was not pleased with the size of the budget, but spending levels probably would have been higher without the agreement. “That would have inevitably led to a supercharged partisan push for higher spending and a drastically increases the likelihood of the political weaponization of government shutdowns.”
Risch has no quarrel with Crapo or Simpson about the upsides of the budget bill, “but I could give an hour-long speech about how bad the bill was on both sides,” Risch said. “To me, it comes back to how unstable, difficult and precarious our financial situation is.”
So, what do we do? “You can hope that when they call the roll that they miss your name somehow,” he said, chuckling.
But Risch is not laughing about the mess that Congress has created over the past decades.