Idaho’s Simpson trying to reopen national parks, DC museums

As chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the National Park Service, Idaho GOP Congressman Mike Simpson is part of the latest strategy by House Republicans to win a showdown with the Democratic Senate and President Obama.

On Tuesday, Simpson brought to the floor the Open Our National Parks and Museums Act, or House Joint Resolution 70. The vote late Tuesday was 252-175, but the measure required a two-thirds vote because it hadn’t gone through the Rules Committee and a suspension of the rules was necessary.

Shortly after 5 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday, Simpson resumed his effort under a new Rules Committee rule allowing a simple majority to send the bill to the Senate. Simpson’s bill passed 252-173 shortly after 6:30 p.m. Eastern time.

“Why are the House and Senate denying the American people the right to visit these treasured parks?” Simpson asked colleagues during debate.

“It’s time to stop using federal employees as pawns in this cynical game,” replied the leader of the Democratic opposition, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia, who criticized selective reopening. “We want to open the government and we would vote today to do so, if you’d let the bill come to the floor.”

In his closing debate, Simpson blamed Democrats for shuttering the government: “It is not a Republican shutdown. It is a Democratic my-way-or-the-highway.”

A Democratic motion to replace Simpson’s bill with the Senate-passed bill to reopen the whole government was ruled out of order Wednesday evening by the acting speaker of the House, Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga.

Two other measures to restore funding for veterans’ programs (H.J.R. 72) and to fund local operations in the District of Columbia (H.J.R. 71) also failed Tuesday for not reaching two-thirds, 264-164 and 265-163, respectively. The D.C. bill passed Wednesday by voice vote. The veterans’ bill is expected to be taken up Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has rejected the GOP’s partial funding bills, calling it cherry-picking. But Simpson spokeswoman Nikki Watts said Republicans see promise in the strategy.

“We all want our national parks open,” said Watts said. “It’s the Republicans way of saying, ‘Let’s find things we can find common ground on and start working together to get the government back open.’”

In his opening debate Tuesday afternoon, Simpson noted that 401 park units had closed, along with 19 Smithsonian Museums, the U.S. Holocaust Museum and the National Gallery of Art. Simpson estimated the daily economic loss in Washington, D.C., alone at $200 million.

“This doesn’t even begin to measure the national and international impact of these closures,” Simpson said. “In the case of the National Park Service, 21,379 employees across the country were furloughed today. This is an impact on real people. Families who long ago made plans to visit Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Statue of Liberty found these sites and others shuttered today.”

If you watch the video link above to Simpson’s YouTube site, you’ll see another possible impact of the shutdown. Simpson appears like a throwback to the rabbit-ears era of television, fuzzily wavering on the screen. Simpson has furloughed 11 of his 17 staffers.

“It’s a rough video,” Watts conceded. “It’s the best we could get. Maybe our tech guys were furloughed.”

I also asked Watts about Simpson’s apparent about-face on his opposition to the GOP forcing a shutdown if Democrats wouldn’t agree to defund or delay Obamacare. On On Aug. 20, Simpson told the Statesman editorial board he opposed a shutdown over Obamacare, despite his strong opposition to the law.

“I don’t like it,” he said of the strategy to link defunding Obamcare to continuing spending in the fiscal year that began Tuesday. “There is an old saying in politics that you never want to take a hostage that you can’t shoot. This is a hostage we should not shoot, and I won’t. Closing the government down has significant consequences.”

Exactly a month later, on Sept. 20, Simpson voted for a continuing spending bill that defunded Obamacare as House Speaker John Boehner revised his strategy to satisfy the GOP’s tea party wing.

Watts said Simpson didn’t change his mind.

“That was the House’s strongest desire and when you’re negotiating with somebody you put everything you want on the table,” Watts said. “The government didn’t shut down on the 20th and that wasn’t the last bill offered by the House of Representatives. The House started it with plenty of time to go back and forth (with the Senate.) He has voted ‘yes’ on every bill brought in front of the House to keep the government open.”

Last weekend, the House scaled back its negotiating position to delay the individual mandate in Obamacare by a year. Simpson also voted for that measure, which was rejected by the Senate.

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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