Politics & Government

New Idaho Senator Risch sworn in

WASHINGTON — Each time he's been sworn into office, Jim Risch has taken the oath to uphold his Constitutional duties with his hand on the same family Bible.

Following each ceremony, Risch has carefully marked the milestones: twice for lieutenant governor of Idaho, once for governor of the state.

But Tuesday, in the rush before being sworn in as the junior Republican U.S. senator from Idaho, the Bible was forgotten at a Capitol Hill hotel. Staffers scrambled to retrieve it, then dashed back to the Senate just minutes before the ceremony, Bible in hand. From the gallery, a whole family tree's worth of relatives looked on with relief: his two brothers, his sister, nieces and nephews and his sons and grandchildren.

Swearing-in accomplished, Risch and MikeCrapo sped from the Senate chambers to the floor of the House of Representatives, where they joined their colleagues from Idaho: newly elected Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick and veteran Republican Rep. Mike Simpson.

"It's a celebration of the American system, of the freedom we have and the freedom to change governments without violence," Risch said as he walked from the Senate to the House with Crapo, his longtime friend and now the senior senator from Idaho. "It's exciting."

"It finally sunk in," said Risch's wife, Vicki, as friends and family celebrated with a cake-and-cookies reception in the new Capitol Visitor's Center. "It all just kind of built up to this moment." Tuesday's swearing-in ceremonies, which ushered in the 111th Congress, marked the beginning of a new era for Idaho?s four-member congressional delegation.

Minnick was accompanied during his wearing-in by two of his four children: Denali, 11, and Dixon, 15. Outside of the House chambers after the ceremony, Denali licked an ice cream cone she had snagged from the House cloakroom. Dixon sought signatures from Senate and House members for his school excuse slip. Minnick introduced his children to an old friend: Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., who worked with him at the Pentagon more than 30 years ago.

Minnick said he found the most difficult part of his new job was the "informal decision-making, social and unwritten rules of how things work." "They aren't in a manual," he said.

Minnick had considered voting "present" when it was time for the roll call vote - a largely symbolic one - to reelect Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. as Speaker of the House. Such a vote would have signaled that he represents his conservative-leaning district first and foremost, not the Democratic Party. But Minnick said he had discussed his possible vote with his new colleagues, including Simpson, and decided it wasn't the time for such a move.

"The speaker has been very, very effective and she is the leader and I am a Democrat," Minnick said. "I think I can accomplish more as a congressman representing a small state by focusing on substantive matters we will be making decisions on over the coming months. I think that is more important than anything that is purely symbolic." Minnick, who ousted one-term Republican Rep. Bill Sali, became the only Democrat in the state's congressional delegation, giving the Republican state a voice in the Democratic-led Congress. Minnick joined a class of 54 freshman members of Congress; of those, 32 are Democrats and 22 are Republicans.

Risch, who gave up his post as Idaho's lieutenant governor, was elected to the seat held by Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who retired following a sex scandal.

Nine new senators took office Tuesday; Risch and Mike Johanns of Nebraska are the only Republicans. Several other new senators are likely to join the body in the coming weeks, however, including a replacement for Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who is expected to be confirmed as President-elect Barack Obama?s secretary of state.

And Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken continue to battle in court over the Minnesota seat even as Senate leaders continue to grapple with how to handle Obama's successor in the Senate. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is under federal investigation, chose the state's former Attorney General Roland Burris, but Burris was refused entry to the Senate Tuesday.