As Congress raced toward another spending deadline, most were watching Sen. Rand Paul’s objections to a proposed spending plan. But another Republican was creating more headaches for GOP leaders: Sen. James Risch of Idaho.
While the government spending bill eventually passed in the early hours of Friday morning, the drama started Thursday afternoon, when Risch approached Senate Republican leadership visibly angered about a provision in the spending bill – the re-naming of White Clouds Wilderness preserve in Idaho.
The spending bill, which many consider the last major piece of legislation of the year and included plenty of legislation beyond funding the government, had a provision from Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson re-naming the preserve the “Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness” preserve, after the former Democratic Idaho governor and Interior secretary under President Jimmy Carter.
As to what, in an old political rivalry, could’ve led to such a visceral response by Risch, aides in both parties were still trying to figure out what had occurred. At one point, a 2008 profile of Risch’s political rise began circulating that recounted Risch’s time as the majority leader in the Idaho state senate when Andrus, who died last year, was governor. The Idaho Statesman profile noted Risch “clashed with Democratic Gov. Cecil Andrus, particularly over education funding in the 1980s.”
CNN has reached out to Risch’s office for comment and has not yet received a response. When approached by reporters on Capitol Hill, Risch repeatedly refused to respond to questions about holding up the vote.
Risch wasn’t just serious about his problems with the name, he was willing to object to any vote on the bill in the near term, the sources said.
As the night moved on, aides began scrambling to find a path forward. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and senior Republican staff was dealing almost entirely with Risch’s issue, trying to figure out a path forward, despite the widespread attention to Paul’s issue.
At around 10:30 p.m. ET, as this drama was playing out on the floor, Risch and McConnell stood in front of each other talking sternly. Risch’s arms motioned up and down and he could be heard from the press gallery telling the leader, “I’m not going to consent to do anything.” McConnell spent time putting out this fire meaning he was unable to watch his beloved Kentucky Wildcats play in the Sweet 16.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnseota Democrat, went from group to group of senators, showing them a picture of Andrus from a Wikipedia page on her iPhone and talking about the issue.
There were meetings with staff and the senator in the cloakroom, just off the Senate floor. That led to a meeting in Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s office. Finally, a phone call to House Speaker Paul Ryan to lay out exactly how to get the name changed or removed. The solution, which was quietly and quickly approved on the Senate floor by unanimous consent, was in the form of an enrollment correction to the omnibus, which the House will consider at a later date. Within just a few minutes, Risch acquiesced and agreed to move ahead with a change to the omnibus.
Earlier Thursday, Cecil Andrus’ daughter, Tracy, praised the effort to add the governor’s name to the wilderness area.
“Dad viewed the White Clouds as one of Idaho’s crown jewels,” Tracy Andrus told the Idaho Statesman. “To receive this, he would have been honored and humbled.”
The Andrus family, she added, will be “eternally grateful to Rep. Simpson for making this happen.”
In the end, despite the technical correction effort, Risch was given no assurance the House would considers the change. In fact, aides said the chamber almost certainty won’t. The preserve will now be named for Cecil Andrus.
While the spending bill eventually passed Friday morning, Risch was among the Republican senators who voted “no.”
Trump signed the bill after a brief veto threat later Friday.
CNN’s Ted Barrett, Kristin Wilson and Lauren Fox contributed to this report.