Friday, April 13, 2007

Simpson tackles new realities in 110th Congress

Congressman visits Wood River Valley to talk politics

Express Staff Writer

Operating in the minority party status in the newly Democratically controlled U.S. Congress has taken some getting used to, admits Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho. Simpson visited the Wood River Valley Tuesday in an effort to get out and meet with various citizens and political leaders living in his district. The congressman also met with the Blaine County Commission on Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Willy Cook

While the switch to Democratic control in the 110th session of the U.S. Congress has brought with it a whole new set of issues and political realities, some things do remain the same.

In fact, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, said this week, partisan politics have not taken over in Washington, D.C., and they certainly haven't changed his approaches to policy and lawmaking.

Simpson, who represents Idaho's 2nd Congressional District, said he will continue to work with his colleagues from across the aisle as he has in the past.

"You work with people in both parties," he said in an interview Tuesday morning in Ketchum. "I don't feel any different in that respect."

"Some of them are my best friends, I don't think the Republicans are always right or the Democrats are always right."

As perhaps a measure of that willingness to work with both sides, Simpson said he was able to keep his seat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, chaired by Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind.

Democrats expanded the subcommittee by two seats, with one reserved for a Democrat and the other for a Republican. Key members in both parties pushed for him to remain on the subcommittee, Simpson said.

"They expanded the committee so I could stay on it. It's very important to me. I like that I'm moving up in seniority in the appropriations committee."

Of course, not everything is as it once was for Simpson, who for the first time in his political career—one that has spanned both the Idaho Legislature and the U.S. Congress—finds himself in a minority party status.

"It is an adjustment," he admits. But that adjustment has happened inside the man as much as it has occurred in his surroundings.

"Looking back to when I first got into the state Legislature, I was probably one of those fire-breathing conservatives that thought he had all the answers. The problem was, I didn't know I didn't have all the questions."

Now, Simpson said he spends more time listening to people on the opposite side of an issue from his own opinions. It's an attribute he said is mirrored in his bookshelf, which has titles by authors like Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner.

"They will change your outlook a little bit," he said. "It's not a bad thing. It's the definition of having an open mind. If all you're going to do is listen to people and read people you're going to agree with, you don't need to read them."

Changes seen on the Democrats' watch in Washington this year include an entirely new agenda and new committee chairs.

In the first few months of Democratic control, the Congress has focused mainly on issues highlighted by the Democrats during the run up to the November 2006 elections, he said. This has included items such as raising the federal minimum wage, something Simpson said he supported in the previous Congress.

"You look at issues more than anything else," he said.

Also, the new speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is experiencing a learning curve adjusting to her new role, Simpson said, and that role is meant to extend beyond party lines.

"What she needs to focus on is making the House work," he said.

Questions about partisanship politics aside, Simpson predicts Pelosi will become increasingly accustomed to her role as time goes on.

As for his own priorities in the new session of Congress, Simpson is quick to point to his ongoing sponsorship of the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act (CIEDRA). The bill, which Simpson reintroduced into the U.S. House on Jan. 4, would, among other things, designate three new wilderness areas totaling more than 319,000 acres in the Boulder and White Clouds mountains north of Ketchum.

CIEDRA would also give away more than 5,000 acres of public land, mostly to Custer County and its municipalities, for economic development purposes.

Those provisions, which have been included in part to gain the support of normally wilderness-wary officials in Custer County, are sure to gain a reinvigorated review under the Democrats' watch, Simpson said.

This may lead to modifications in the bill to appease Democrats, something Simpson said he is willing to do, at least up to a point.

"I suspect there will be some changes in the bill that will reflect their concerns," he said. "I'm not saying there's not wiggle room in there."

For some Democrats, the trouble with CIEDRA is that it's more than just lines on a map, as many wilderness bills of the past have been.

"This is a different kind of wilderness bill than they've ever seen before," Simpson said.

But Simpson said he will strive to keep the changes from derailing the delicate balance of interests that have contributed to the bill.

"I have to hold that coalition together."

And if the Democrats push for too many changes, that alliance could break up.

"They realize that," Simpson said.

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