WASHINGTON — It's an alphabetical coincidence, yet a symbolic one. Whenever there's a roll call vote in the U.S. Senate, the clerk calls "Craig" right before "Crapo."
Since his 1998 election to the Senate, Sen. Mike Crapo has always been No. 2 to Sen. Larry Craig, the senior member of the Idaho congressional delegation and the better-known and more outspoken of the two Republican lawmakers.
But with Craig on his way out of the Senate in early 2009, some of Idaho's elder statesmen say that Crapo already has moved into a more senior role, albeit in a quiet, unassuming way typical of his time in politics.
"Not officially, of course," said former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, a Republican who served from 1995 to 1999. "Senator Crapo's not a flamboyant guy. He's self-confident. He's capable of doing what he's required to do. He's not seeking the limelight all the time, which I find endearing."
Craig, a senator since 1990, lost power and clout last fall after fellow Republicans launched an ethics investigation into his arrest in a sex sting in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport. Craig lost his leadership posts on Senate committees, and although he initially said he would resign from office, decided to see out the end of his term and work to overturn his guilty plea in the case. The Senate Ethics Committee admonished him last month for "improper conduct."
Craig's woes left Crapo in the awkward position of supporting his fellow colleague and friend through a difficult time, but duty-bound to look out for Idaho's future interests in the Senate after Craig was gone.
Crapo made some moves, where he could. He stepped in quickly to endorse his pick for Craig's replacement, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, the leading candidate in an eight-way Republican primary for the open Senate seat. It was a rare endorsement for Crapo, who typically doesn't endorse even presidential candidates in primaries.
His office also picked up a substantial amount of the constituent service work that Craig's staff had been doing. In the uncertainty over whether Craig would stay or go, Idaho residents started going to Crapo with passport problems, IRS troubles and other disputes with federal agencies. They continue to do so.
And many people and institutions in Idaho started looking to Crapo to pick up Craig's Idaho agenda.
The University of Idaho, for example, generally seeks as much as $20 million in earmarked federal money to help pay for research projects each year, said Marty Peterson, a special assistant to the university president. The U of I generally looks to Craig, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. But without him there, it will be harder to land those earmarks, Peterson said. They've already made their 2009 requests, but next year, they'll be reliant on Crapo, Peterson said.
"We will probably be looking to Senator Crapo to take a stronger role than we've asked him to take in the past," Peterson said, although he acknowledged that additional scrutiny of the earmarking process means it will be harder for anyone to land extra money for the university. "To a person, the Idaho delegation has always been supportive of the things the university is working on, and we know that will continue."
When asked, though, Crapo is insistent that the job as senior senator isn't quite his yet.
"Senator Craig is filling out his term," Crapo said. "He will be the senior senator and continues to function actively in our delegation and here in the Senate. When the time comes for a transition ... there obviously will be a transition point. But that transition point hasn't arrived yet. So right now, what I'm doing is working very aggressively on my agenda and on the agenda our delegation intends to work together on. And we'll continue doing that until a transition time really develops."
Crapo has had to walk a fine line, said state Sen. Denton Darrington, a Republican from Declo who served with Crapo when Crapo was president of the Idaho Senate from 1988 to 1992.
Darrington, a close friend who freely admits he still offers Crapo more than his share of unsolicited advice, predicted that Crapo would continue to transition into his new role with ease.
"My view always was, that when Mike was the junior senator - which he still is - he learned how to work within the process and have the respect of his colleagues on both sides of the aisle," Darrington said. "That's quiet stuff, that's quiet work. That's not the stuff that makes headlines, but it's the stuff that gets things done."
Crapo has a long list of national and local issues he's tackling and said they're priorities whether or not Craig is in office. They include making tax cuts permanent, revising some aspects of the Endangered Species Act and working on health care reform with fellow westerner Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.
Crapo has a whole separate list of Idaho priorities, No. 1 being his legislation to designate more than 500,000 acres of the Owyhee canyonlands as wilderness.
The legislation also would compensate ranchers who are giving up land and grazing in some areas.
Environmentalists say that if Crapo successfully pushes the Owyhee wilderness bill through Congress before year's end, it will show that he has stepped outside of Craig's shadow.
While never an overt roadblock on the issue, Craig has been something of a stumbling block on the legislation, and it failed to pass when the 2006 congressional session came to an end.
Crapo is rewriting the bill under the guidelines of a Democratic Congress, and he has been instructed that for it to pass the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Craig has to agree with it.
Crapo thinks he is close on legislation that everyone can agree on, including Craig and the committee chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.
"I went to Senator Craig and said, 'Senator Craig, would you work with us to get a bill?' " Crapo said. "Senator Craig committed to doing that and is doing that. So we are working together."
Craig Gehrke, regional director with the Wilderness Society of Idaho, said his group has been mostly pleased with how Crapo has handled the issue so far.
"He's very much let us find our own way - we're free to figure it out on our own," Gehrke said. "But not necessarily advocating a point of view ... he's never tried to impose his views on us."
But environmentalists know that Crapo is the key to passing the conservation measure, Gehrke said. And that may mean stepping into his role as senior senator a little bit early.
"We are relying on Senator Crapo to have some pretty frank talks with Senator Craig," Gehrke said. "That's the political hard call he's going to have to make. We