There's at least one conservative man in Alaska who might be hoping Sen. Lisa Murkowski leaves the White House today as a supporter of pricing carbon dioxide.
It's not because Joe Miller is focused in fixing climate change. That's a liberal theory based on "dubious science," he says, "at best."
Rather, a sharp reversal by Murkowski, a moderate Republican who has rejected Democratic appeals to support capping carbon emissions this year, might help him win an election.
"The science is certainly not conclusive that man-made global warming is a fact," Miller, an attorney who is trying to unseat the single-term senator, said yesterday in an interview. "I think it absolutely is going to hurt her if she comes out of that meeting supporting cap and trade."
It's against that backdrop that Murkowski and a knot of other senators will meet today with President Obama, who will attempt to find traction behind energy and climate legislation that prices carbon emissions from at least some sources, like electric power plants.
The timing, however, is difficult. Murkowski is approaching an Aug. 24 primary election with Miller, who is targeting her support for a limited cap-and-trade bill in 2007 as a way to connect her to the liberal administration and its perceived appetite for bulging government programs.
"Murkowski has crossed that line to the left on numerous votes," said Frank Bettine, an engineer with the utility industry and a member of the Conservative Patriots Group, a tea party organization in Wasilla, Alaska, that endorsed Miller. "There's a huge distrust by us conservatives of how she's actually going to vote. She's very liberal."
The group distributes a questionnaire -- one Murkowski aide called it a "purity test" -- asking candidates to "reject the argument that man made CO2 emissions are causing significant global warming" and promise to oppose "costly new regulations." Miller affirmed the statement.
Murkowski looked for 'far-right' move
It's unclear if Alaska -- like Kentucky, Nevada and Utah -- will become the next frontier for a conservative uprising. Like successful candidates in those other states, Miller has gained the support of local and national tea party groups and the endorsement of former Gov. Sarah Palin (R).
So far, though, there's been little sign of a conservative wildfire, according to observers. Murkowski is a household name, thanks in part to the former governor, her father. She enjoys the advantages of incumbency, having risen quickly into the party's leadership circle and to the top Republican slot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a key assignment for a senator from a state rich in oil.
Then there's cash. Murkowski's campaign has $2.1 million. Miller has yet to file a federal campaign finance report, but says money is coming in. The Tea Party Express, which helped Sharron Angle surge to victory in Nevada's GOP primary, is also promising to provide foot soldiers and advertising help.
"That's major," said Miller's spokesman, Randy DeSoto, who called the group's involvement a "force multiplier."
It's likely that Miller will need all the troops he can muster, because Murkowski has been preparing for this race -- perhaps with an eye toward Palin as the potential challenger -- for more than a year, observers say. She spearheaded an unsuccessful effort to undercut U.S. EPA's scientific findings that greenhouse gases threaten human health. The maneuvering, which appealed to many conservatives, marked a retrenching of Murkowski's once moderate position on climate issues.
"She wanted to do something sort of far-right that would appeal to the base and help strengthen her position against a primary challenger," said a former climate adviser to a Republican senator. "So that's why she went after the EPA so strongly, but otherwise was willing to be fairly constructive on climate."
Climate bills 'slam us'
Murkowski rejects those types of assertions. Cap-and-trade bills proposed this year, or stringent EPA regulations on thousands of businesses, would cripple employment and hike energy prices as the nation slogs through a recession, she and her aides say.
"Not at all. Not at all. Not at all," Murkowski said when asked if she was maneuvering to the right for her primary. "You look at what I've been advocating for a year, before there was any opponent at any level saying anything. I was saying, 'We've got an energy bill that is good and solid and bipartisan,' and there is no way, no shape, a cap-and-trade piece in that, because we know it doesn't make sense for our economy."
She was referring to the "energy only" bill that she co-sponsored in her committee with the panel's chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). It also encourages energy efficiency and establishes a renewable electricity standard.
"What I have been saying time and time again is we've got to reduce our emissions and do so in a responsible way, but we've got to do it in a way that doesn't kick the economy in the head," Murkowski added. "And that's exactly what these cap-and-trade proposals [will do], whether it's Waxman-Markey, whether it's Kerry-Lieberman. I mean the proposals that are out there absolutely slam us at a time when our economy is hurting."
That jab was aimed at Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who introduced a climate bill that the House passed last year. The Senate plan, offered by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would regulate emissions in the utility, manufacturing and transportation sectors.
"This makes no sense," she said of the bills. "So where I am on standing up and speaking on cap and trade has nothing to do with the campaigns or who's saying what."
Others find that unlikely. Murkowski has slid to the right recently, says Jerry McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Last week, she went to the Senate floor and called for a reversal of the controversial health care law championed by the president. The campaign's first radio ads aired last week, too, lampooning Democratic spending and promoting her opposition to the economic stimulus plan.
"She is trying to satisfy everybody," McBeath said. "She is not a goddess of political virtue, where she would look at the integrity of each and every statement, in terms of its truth value. She just wants to get re-elected and make it as easy as possible. And I think that she'll get there. She's been cautious."
Tea party uprising in Alaska?
On climate change, some sense a shifting position from her on its cause. Not long ago, Murkowski was widely seen as a strong climate advocate, driven in part by Alaska's vulnerability to climatic affects like melting sea ice, diminished permafrost, coastal erosion, altering seasons and ocean acidification.
All of those things are happening, she says, but she's not sure why.
"I don't know how much of that is attributable to man's emissions," Murkowski said. "What I do know is there are more of us on planet Earth who are driving more vehicles, we are doing more, and where we can responsibly reduce our emissions, we should be doing so. That's just good, smart policy."
The sour economy and the current climate bills make up a different picture than in 2007 when Murkowski co-sponsored a cap and trade bill that locked the price of carbon allowances at no more than $12, according to her supporters.
So the senator, it seems, is on a path that is too conservative for Democrats and too liberal for her opponent. She appears unwilling to support carbon pricing, despite the president's expected appeals today, and at the same time takes a more measured position than Miller.
"My perspective, and I think this is shared by most Alaskans, is that man-made, or I guess it's also considered anthropogenic, global warming, is I think in serious question," Miller said.
Murkowski's careful climate approach could benefit her in the primary, observers say. The race is open to independent voters, a factor that could help the moderate Murkowski if traditional voters go to the polls.
There is, of course, the unknown influence of the tea party movement. It has energized conservative voters in other states. "The question is, will that happen in Alaska?" a Murkowski aide wondered.