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New majority means new roles for senators

by CHUCK MALLOY
| February 1, 2021 11:28 AM

During most of his two years as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch made it a point not to publicly air his disagreements with the president on global issues.

With his close working relationship with President Trump, Risch did not need to spend his time sending out press releases or calling news conferences. He had an inside track with the Oval Office — the kind of clout with a president that only a few ever attain. Any disagreements Risch had with Trump were discussed, and settled, behind closed doors.

But with President Biden in command and Democrats holding a slim majority in the Senate, the rules have changed. It took Risch just two days into the Biden presidency to fire off a press release disagreeing with the president’s decision to extend the New START Treaty for five years.

Risch, while arguing for a shorter time frame, says the lengthy extension opens the door for Russians “to continue to expand and improve their tactical nuclear weapons and exotic delivery systems; the Chinese government to continue or even accelerate the growth of its nuclear forces, and the North Koreans to pursue new nuclear capabilities, including tactical nuclear weapons and larger solid-fuel.”

Those are scary prospects, for certain. But it’s a good guess that Biden will pay more heed to the incoming committee chairman, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who praises the president for his move.

“It constrains Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, provides strong and detailed verification measures to ensure Russia adheres to its commitments, and ensures the United States has the flexibility it needs to maintain a safe, secure, modern and effective nuclear deterrent,” Menendez said in a news release. “This is an excellent first step in the Biden administration’s efforts to restore arms control as a critical tool for protecting the American people.”

The Senate Foreign Relations is one committee that is not consumed by partisan politics, so there’s no great divide here. Risch and Menendez are old pros who are well versed on the ins and outs of foreign policy. They are smart people who happen to disagree on this issue. But in terms of access to the president, the roles are reversed from the Trump years. Risch will have to find other forums to express his disagreements with the president, aside from personal contact.

Risch isn’t the only Republican senator adjusting to minority status. Sen. Mike Crapo, who also lost a chairmanship with Democrats now in control, has joined with 10 other GOP senators in the introduction of a constitutional amendment to keep the U.S. Supreme Court at nine members. One of the worst fears for Republicans has been that the Democratic majority would add more liberal justices to the Supreme Court to balance the court’s ideological scale.

“The Supreme Court plays a vital role in safeguarding the United States Constitution, and has done so in a nonpartisan manner with nine members for more than 150 years,” said Crapo. “Packing the Supreme Court and increasing its size would give way to more partisan infiltration for many generations to come and would present greater and unnecessary volatile challenges in fairly and constitutionally settling the most pressing judicial cases affecting Americans.”

Republicans appear to be on safe ground for now, with two Democrats rejecting efforts to end the filibuster and the 60-vote requirement for the passage of most bills in the Senate. The call for a constitutional amendment, which likely will go nowhere beyond the GOP caucus rooms, essentially is a pre-emptive measure.

For Risch and Crapo, political life in the Senate was more fun when Republicans had the majority and they had lofty committee chairmanships. And with Trump in the White House, it was a golden age for the GOP in terms of political power.

But minority status is not necessarily a life sentence for Idaho’s senators. Politics is much like the weather. If you don’t like what you see, then hang around for two years and it will change.

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Chuck Malloy, a longtime Idaho journalist and Silver Valley native, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at ctmalloy@outlook.com.