Over the door to Rep. Mike Simpson's office, next to the mounted head of an elk his father shot, hangs a quote by 19th century statesman Henry Clay, whose negotiations delayed the start of the Civil War.
"Politics is not about ideological purity or moral self-righteousness, it's about governing," it reads. "If you cannot compromise you cannot govern."
Simpson (R-Idaho) has earned his own reputation on Capitol Hill and with constituent groups as a legislator who will work with sometime opponents and Democrats to craft legislation -- a quality that is in short supply in today's political environment, where crossing party lines even to cultivate a friendship can sometimes hurt a member's credibility with his base and cost him a primary.
"It's considered a cardinal sin if you even associate with the other side," said former Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), a leading moderate and environmentalist who retired at the end of 2006 in part because he thought Congress was becoming too partisan.
Former Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah) lost his party's nominating contest last year to a tea party-backed challenger because he worked with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on an alternative health care proposal, among other things. A long list of members of Congress -- particularly Republicans -- have paid a similar price.
"The word 'compromise' has become a bad word. Which is too bad," Simpson said in an interview. "That's what politics is."
Simpson, a former speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives now in his seventh term in Congress, is hardly a moderate Republican. He has usually voted with his party with a few notable exceptions, as when he voted in 2008 to support the Wall Street rescue package -- in his words, to avoid "economic Armageddon."
His stance on the issue of climate science lines up with the current Republican doctrine of skepticism, and he voted against the Waxman-Markey climate bill in 2009. He does acknowledge that humans may be contributing to climate change, which some in his party deny, but he calls U.S. EPA's planned regulations for carbon "dramatic" and potentially harmful to the economy.
Still, if Congress eventually moves to combat man-made carbon dioxide emissions, it will have to be with the help of members like Simpson who have shown they are willing to work with colleagues across the aisle on issues that are sometimes out of their comfort zones.
Observers say that while the Interior and Environment appropriations chairman is a conservative, he is more of a legislator than a partisan, a role that allows him to work with a wide range of constituencies and that implies some level of political risk, given his deeply red Idaho district.
"In his district it would probably be safer to be [tea party favorite] Michele Bachmann than Mike Simpson, but Idaho is lucky to have a leader rather than a demagogue," said Kai Anderson, a Democratic lobbyist with the firm Cassidy & Associates who has worked with Simpson on wilderness legislation.
"Mike Simpson is one of perhaps two or three dozen House Republicans who by their voting records are pretty much down-the-line conservatives as they all are, but whose inclination is to solve problems," said Norman Ornstein a congressional scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute. He added that that while problem-solving is key to enacting policy, it is not rewarded in the current Congress and is therefore scarce.
Simpson's record on environmental issues is conservative by any measure; the League of Conservation Voters has given him a lifetime score of 21 percent.
But Rick Johnson, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League, said votes only tell part of the story. Johnson has worked with Simpson for years on environmental issues, and he says he has found Simpson to be a partner on several occasions.
"It's what makes my relationship with Mike Simpson look really strange when you look at his LCV rating," Johnson said. "LCV ratings are about the votes."
Johnson conceded that Simpson's overall environmental voting record was "probably lousy."
"But there is a lot that goes on in our incredibly complex governmental processes and the evolution of policy that is more sophisticated than whether he is 'gettable,'" on pro-environmental votes, he said.
Johnson said that Simpson is unusual in that he is willing to consider viewpoints that differ from his own, a quality that sometimes makes the congressman an unlikely ally on environmental issues.
Johnson pointed to Simpson's handling of the Land and Water Conservation Fund as part a temporary spending bill that became law in April.
In the underlying bill to keep the federal government running through the end of fiscal 2011, Simpson slashed spending for the fund, which helps federal, state and local governments acquire new federal lands, protect species and promote urban recreation.
But he then helped fight off efforts by other Republicans to zero out the fund's budget altogether when the measure came to the floor.
"He will criticize EPA ... very pointedly," Johnson said. "But he also understands that individual municipalities either do or do not clean up their water based on EPA grants."
When he is in the process of crafting his spending legislation, Simpson describes visiting Senate counterparts -- like former Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) -- to try to iron out areas of disagreement in advance.
"When you're over there, you stop down and see the staff on the committee on both the Democratic and Republican side," Simpson said. "You need to do those kinds of things I think to be effective, because when we need some help on something, we're able to call both the Republican and Democratic staff over there and they know that I'm not just some radical out there. That I'm a serious legislator."
Simpson describes similar meetings with leaders of the U.S. EPA and Interior authorizing committees, leading Democratic appropriators, and the agencies themselves.
"That is highly unusual behavior," Anderson said.
"It shouldn't be unusual," said Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.), the top Democrat on Simpson's subcommittee. "Unfortunately, it is unusual in this Congress."
Moran called Simpson a "first-class legislator who wants to get things done" and said the Idahoan had frequently deferred to him and to other committee members on issues of importance to their districts.
"I don't want to say too many glowing things about him, because it will get him in trouble with his colleagues and constituents," Moran said. "But the fact is that Mike is very thoughtful, he is extremely well-informed and conscientious."
"He knows that he's having to steer this Interior appropriations bill through some rough ideological shoals," Moran said, adding that Simpson faces pressure from within the Republican caucus to take a hard line, especially when it comes to cutting spending. "But I think he is willing to make some compromises as long as it is consistent with the values of his constituents."
Outside of appropriations, Simpson has worked for years on a compromise that would designate 330,000 acres of wilderness in central Idaho while loosening protections on an additional 130,000 acres.
While it would protect pristine portions of the Boulder and White Cloud mountains, Simpson's "Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act" (CIEDRA) would also release four BLM wilderness study areas (WSA) into multiple uses such as motorized recreation or energy development.
"I don't know that I would have been supportive 20 years ago of creating any more wilderness in Idaho," Simpson said. "Sometimes I'm surprised myself that I am working on doing a wilderness bill there."
But Simpson said he came to the conclusion that the only way to open some areas to recreation and other uses is to offer environmentalists something they want -- namely new high-value areas to be designated for wilderness protection.
Cattlemen, off-highway vehicle users and others meanwhile would see other acreage potentially opened for their use, which Simpson hopes will induce them to accept some new wilderness. The measure also offers cattlemen compensation if they voluntarily relinquish grazing permits.
Some environmental groups, like Idaho Conservation League, consider the Simpson bill a net positive for wilderness protection, while others including Missoula, Mont.-based Wilderness Watch warn the bill needs improvements to protect against damages from motorized vehicle use.
Johnson, who has worked with Simpson on the issue for more than a decade, said the congressman originally approached the Boulder-White Cloud issue as a political puzzle to be solved, not from a desire to protect the area's environment.
"He once described his idea of a wilderness experience as when his golf ball gets stuck in the rough," Johnson said.
But in the years that he has been working on this issue, Johnson said Simpson's outlook has evolved to the point where the 60-year-old congressman, who used to be a dentist, frequently spends time in the area his bill would help protect.
Simpson said his views have changed, in part due to his interactions with the environmental community. He said he makes a practice of reading books and talking to people who challenge his assumptions.
"It's a rude awakening when you finally realize that you're not always right. That sometimes other people have good ideas," he said. "When I first started in politics ... I was probably one of those fire-breathing conservatives who had all the answers. I just didn't know all the questions yet. It takes a while to, for lack of a better word, mature."
Less charitable toward EPA
One area where Simpson has not found many opportunities to compromise is on policies related to EPA, and especially the agency's plans to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"They are grabbing on and trying to control more of our economy than Congress ever would allow through legislation," he said, adding that he believes new EPA rules will lead the U.S. economy to shed jobs.
Simpson also said that while he believed climate change is in part related to human activity, he questioned whether the United States could make a dent in global temperatures "regardless of what we did."
"If we did everything that the climate change people think we ought to do, would it make that much of a difference in the climate? That's where the science is unsettled," he said.
Boehlert said he was not surprised that his former colleague has embraced the line -- now pervasive within the GOP -- that climate science needs to be studied further.
"Mike Simpson is not an Eastern congressman where so much is focused on environmental activism," he said. "He's from an area that is somewhat different."
Still, he said Simpson had a reputation for being "a thoughtful legislator who's a student."
"He's developed a skill in too short supply on Capitol Hill," Boehlert said. "The ability to listen."
Reporter Phil Taylor contributed.
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