By Matt Kalish
Idaho's Jim Risch is ranked the country's most conservative senator by the National Journal.
The same magazine ranked Washington's Maria Cantwell as the fifth most liberal senator.
The two sit next to each other on the Senate Small Business Committee -- Cantwell is chairwoman, Risch is the top Republican -- but are miles apart politically.
Still, "we get along really well," Risch said Friday. "We have philosophical debates, which is fair, but a lot of this stuff is overblown."
The senators were in North Idaho to tour Bullet Tools, a Hayden company that makes a line of industrial cutters from raw metal stock. They also announced plans to introduce bipartisan legislation to renew a trade promotion program called STEP that expired in 2013.
Bullet Tools President Ben Toews told the senators that half his company's products go overseas -- exports that were aided with a STEP grant. The company was named the U.S. Small Business Administration's Exporter of the Year for the Northwest in 2009.
"What I've respected about Sen. Risch is from the first time I met him, he always wanted to talk substantively about the policy," Cantwell said in an interview. "If you can have an open and honest dialogue about something, that's what you need to do."
Said Risch, "In general, small-business issues aren't Republican or Democrat, they're American issues."
Cantwell and Risch also have worked closely with Senate colleagues Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, on issues affecting the Northwest. That continues a tradition of bipartisan work on behalf of the region, including the creation of the Bonneville Power Administration, a new bridge between Lewiston and Clarkston, and measures protecting salmon fisheries, said Marty Peterson, former aide to the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho.
The two states' senators got along well in the 1960s and '70s despite disagreements on foreign policy and spending levels, Peterson said. "They just didn't get into areas where they disagreed," he added.
The current foursome agree on extending payments to local governments for land the federal government owns in their boundaries, and getting food products made from local crops into schools. They have also asked the government to act on issues surrounding the BPA and to rework the Columbia River Treaty.
Such cooperation isn't exclusive to the Washington and Idaho delegations, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, because local interests trump ideology.
The four can work together on issues surrounding forestry, agriculture and the technology industry, Cantwell said, because they share a Northwest frame of mind.
"Our states and region have a lot of products that are so similar," she said recently. "You're talking about things like permitting for hydropower that aren't partisan issues, but they're Northwest issues."
Cornell Clayton, director of Washington State University's Foley Institute for Public Policy, said that mindset might be pushed aside in coming years because the two states are heading in different directions politically.
"Idaho has become a lot more conservative, while the opposite is true for Washington," Clayton said.
Cantwell and Risch still think compromise can be found, such as on the Small Business Administration to help businesses get started and keep going.
"We're not going to agree on everything but we're going to go out and listen," she said. "I think he and I will get creative."