It’s not often when Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch uses terms such as “great,” “outstanding” and “thoughtful” to describe speeches by Democrats. But he gives those accolades to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer for his plea on the Senate floor in 2005 for keeping the filibuster.
At that time, Republicans were in the majority and talk was swirling about getting rid of the filibuster, which would mean that Senate bills could pass by a simple majority, opposed to the 60 votes required with the filibuster.
“Checks and balances, which have been the core of this republic, are about to be evaporated,” Schumer said. “The checks and balances, which say that if you get 51 percent of the vote, you don’t get your way 100 percent of the time.”
The New York Democrat took a swipe at “hard-right” Republicans, saying they “want their way every single time and they will change the rules, break the rules, misread the rules, misread the Constitution so they can get their way.”
Risch was correct. It was a fine speech, complete with passion and some fist pounding. Now, with Democrats holding a majority, talk about ending the filibuster has resurfaced. It will be interesting to see how Schumer responds if the issue advances.
Risch supports keeping the filibuster regardless of what party holds the majority.
“Nothing happens in the Senate without unanimous consent, which is how most things get done, or without give-and-take negotiations through bipartisanship. Without the filibuster, all that goes out the window. The party in power no longer has to negotiate with the other side,” Risch says.
An example of give-and-take negotiations, Risch says, are the four COVID relief packages that passed Congress with at least a smattering of bipartisan support. President Biden had one COVID relief bill that had no support for Republicans, who complained that the nearly $2 trillion package had nothing to do with COVID relief. Biden may have gotten at least a few Republican votes if he had pulled back some on the price tag, but we’ll never know. Republicans, such as Risch, hope that’s not a sign of what’s to come from the new administration.
But for Risch, life goes on. He doesn’t run away from the partisan fights, but his day-to-day focus is on other areas that don’t garner media attention. He says that personal relationships, with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, generally are civil and constructive.
Risch serves on three panels where partisanship practically does not exist – the Ethics Committee (three Republicans and three Democrats), the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Foreign Relations Committee, where he is the ranking member.
On the first two, especially, “if you walk in the room and listen to the discussion, you couldn’t tell a Republican from a Democrat,” he says. “The Foreign Relations Committee is not completely bipartisan, but it’s close to it.”
Risch chaired Foreign Relations when Republicans held power and is now the ranking member, changing places with Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey. The two have differences on some issues, but are on the same side on issues such as dealing with China on territorial violations.
Risch also has a few differences with the Biden administration on foreign policy, but reserves judgment overall. “We need to give him a chance and the space to do what he’s going to do. When it comes to foreign policy, what’s good for America is good for America regardless of whether you are a Republican and Democrat. I want to help him in any way I can to improve our standing in the world.”
On partisan issues, Risch won’t be so diplomatic. There is considerable sentiment for granting statehood to the District of Columbia, which among other things, is certain to pad the Democratic majority in the Senate. Risch and other Republicans are certain to give a few fist-pounding speeches if that idea advances in the full Senate.
Without question, congressional politics was more fun for Risch with Donald Trump as president and the Senate being controlled by Republicans. But he doesn’t dwell on those things.
“We still have a job to do,” he says. “We will survive. We’re Americans and we’ve survived a lot worse than this.”
After more than 50 years in politics, Risch has seen much worse.