Idaho’s Rep. Simpson optimistic about ‘grand bargain’ on budget, Risch less sanguine

Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson, who chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee, predicted Thursday that the debate coming this fall on raising the debt ceiling will spark a bipartisan compromise he’s been working on for years.

Because two-thirds of federal spending is on autopilot — Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare and debt service — Simpson says cuts in the discretionary spending have become significant enough to convince a majority to agree to a deal.

For example, Simpson said, the U.S. Forest Service, whose budget he oversees, now proposes spending 70 percent of its budget on fires and 30 percent on land management, a reversal of the historic ratio.

“They boosted the firefighting costs in this budget and reduced things like hazardous fuels reduction, which is crazy,” the eight-term lawmaker told the Statesman editorial board. “We’re getting down to where it’s going to hit some very ugly stuff.”

The Interior and related agencies budget Simpson’s committee writes has dropped from $32 billion two years ago to $29 billion and will likely be cut to $25 or $26 billion in fiscal 2014, he said.

As Congress considers more cuts borne by one-third of the budget the pressure will build for a deal that includes long-term cuts in entitlement spending along with revenue increases, Simpson argues.

“As we do that more and more, people are going to come to the realization that we’ve got to have a grand bargain, we’ve got to fix this,” Simpson said.

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, agrees with Simpson that debt is the nation’s biggest problem and “desperately” wants a solution. “Our numbers are no different than Greece, except we’ve got a higher limit on our credit card,” Risch said.

But Risch, who says he’ll run for a second term in 2014, foresees more patching and scratching, delaying any “grand bargain.”

“Boy, I don’t hear it,” Risch told the editorial board in a separate meeting, saying Congress has been focused on gun rights and immigration. “I think there needs to be substantially more pressure…There will be some progress. I think it will be incremental, I don’t think you’re going to see the big deal.”

Simpson, who has partnered with House Assistant Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland in leading the “Go Big” coalition, remains optimistic. He predicted a majority of House Republicans will support a compromise with Democrats, knowing that both sides will infuriate some of their most loyal supporters.

“I’m willing to take one or two ugly votes that might cost me my election, might cost all of us our election,” Simpson said. “But as long as you can look in the mirror in the morning and say you did what was right for the country, that’s fine. What I don’t want to do is take 40 or 50 tough votes that don’t solve the problem.”

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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