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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch weighs in on changing tone in Congress and a Biden presidency

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, left, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, arrive Tuesday as Senate Republicans hold leadership elections, on Capitol Hill.  (J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – With the Senate back to work after an election that saw a strong showing from GOP congressional candidates, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch said Friday he was confident Democrats and Republicans will come together to avert a potential government shutdown but less optimistic about lawmakers striking a deal for another coronavirus relief package before the end of the year.

The Idaho Republican, fresh off decisively winning a third term, spoke with The Spokesman-Review at the end of the Senate’s first week of the “lame duck” session before the new Congress is sworn in Jan. 3. He said the tone at the Capitol has shifted as lawmakers enter the last few weeks of the 116th Congress.

“This is my second transition where we move from one political party to another in the White House,” Risch said, acknowledging President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Most of his GOP colleagues in Congress have resisted admitting that amid outgoing President Donald Trump’s claims the election was stolen.

“After an election where you transition from one party to another,” he said, “it is an entirely different feeling or dynamic. It is a change in the music that is playing in the background. We go from heavy metal to classical music in one fell swoop. The cadence changes dramatically, and we’re in the process of that right now.”

While Biden bested Trump by more than 5 million votes, down-ballot Republicans fared better, expanding their minority in the House by a half-dozen seats. While oddsmakers favored the Democrats to take control of the Senate ahead of Election Day, the GOP held on to crucial seats.

Control of the Senate will come down to two races in Georgia’s Jan. 5 runoff, with Democrats needing to win both to seize a narrow majority in the upper chamber. Republicans, favored in both races, need to win just one of the seats to retain their majority and Risch his position as chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Biden, a former senator and Foreign Relations chairman, has promised to reverse Trump’s “America first” ethos and return the country to a more cooperative foreign policy. Risch said he expects to find common ground with the new administration while exerting influence from his committee perch on issues where their views diverge.

“Foreign policy is about as bipartisan as it gets,” Risch said. “Now, we do have specific issues. Probably the poster child for that is Iran.”

The Trump administration pulled out of a 2015 agreement meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program, known by the acronym JCPOA, and Iran has since violated the deal. Biden has said he would rejoin the accord if Iran returns to compliance. Trump also pulled out of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement, another Obama-era deal.

As chairman, Risch effectively has veto power over Biden’s nominees for senior foreign policy roles.

“The people who would negotiate such an agreement come through my committee for confirmation,” he said. “We’ll have opportunities to have really good dialogue with them about JCPOA, about the Paris Accords, about any other of those issues that we do have issues on.”

As Foreign Relations chairman, Risch also wields considerable leverage over the ongoing negotiations to update the Columbia River Treaty between the U.S. and Canada, a deal with major implications for water use in the Columbia River Basin, which includes parts of Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and British Columbia.

“That doesn’t go anywhere without me signing off on it,” Risch said of the treaty. “It is incredibly important to Idaho water users – for that matter, for Washington and Oregon. Assuming I continue on as chairman of the committee, I’m going to be singularly focused on what happens with the Columbia River Treaty.”

With Senators already back at the Capitol and the House returning Monday, lawmakers face multiple deadlines with scant time before year’s end. Congress needs to pass its annual defense spending bill, in theory a straightforward process, but both the House and Senate versions would rename military bases that honor Confederate officers. Trump has threatened to veto the entire bill if that provision isn’t removed, and his Nov. 9 sacking of Defense Secretary Mark Esper heightened concerns the president could hold military funding hostage.

Another urgent legislative challenge is a bill to fund the government.

Congress passed a stopgap spending bill in September, but failing to reach a deal before Dec. 11 would result in a government shutdown. Risch said he was optimistic the parties will come together for that bill.

“We have got to fund the government,” Risch said. “There are active negotiations going on between the parties, obviously with differences, but we’re going to get that done. Beyond that, obviously, there are things that we are deeply divided on, and those move much slower and are more difficult.”

Another round of pandemic relief spending, Risch said, falls into the latter category. Democrats insist Congress should rise to the challenge of a once-in-a-century pandemic and pass a comprehensive bill, while Republicans favor a much narrower, less expensive package. The senator said little has changed since talks over a relief deal paused before the election.

“The parties are still divided on how much and how to do it,” he said. “People are working at it in good faith, but there’s a different view of how to do this. Ours is much smaller and much more targeted. Theirs is much broader and costs a whole lot more money.”

Risch suggested Monday’s news that preliminary test results showed a COVID-19 vaccine to be 90% effective has changed the dynamics of the negotiations. The vaccine maker, Pfizer, has said it expects to produce up to 50 million doses by the end of 2020, with enough available in the United States to vaccinate up to 12.5 million people.

“Most people have not come to the realization that this changes the cadence in America dramatically,” Risch said, recalling the development of the first polio vaccine when he was a child.

“I remember this like it was yesterday,” the 77-year-old said, “hearing my parents … talking about the fact that a Dr. Salk had come up with a vaccine that was going to end (polio).”

“Lo and behold, we all got in line and got a shot, and that was the end of it,” Risch said. “We are headed for the same thing with COVID. We’re going to experience that here very quickly and we’re going to get back to a very normal life.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, estimated Wednesday a vaccine could be available to all Americans by April. In a virtual event that same day, Fauci said he was optimistic a second vaccine would prove similarly effective soon. But public health experts have warned the country will first need to get through what could be a devastating winter as cases continue to rise.