Murkowski weighs life after energy gavel

By Geof Koss | 01/29/2019 07:15 AM EST

The end of Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s time atop the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee comes as the clock ticks toward another political milestone: the end of her third full Senate term.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has gained a reputation of being more of a swing vote on key issues.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) has gained a reputation of being more of a swing vote on key issues. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

Lisa Murkowski’s political career is approaching a crossroads of sorts.

Over the past two years with the Trump administration and a GOP-led Congress, the Alaska Republican repeatedly chalked up wins in long-fought battles over resource extraction on federal lands in the Last Frontier, including the decadeslong fight over drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Her chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee was no small factor in winning the addition of ANWR drilling into the 2017 GOP tax law. In doing so, she checked off a box that eluded her own father, former Energy Chairman Frank Murkowski, as well as her mentor, the legendary Sen. Ted Stevens.


But at the end of the 116th Congress, Murkowski will be term-limited from continuing to serve as the top Republican on the ENR Committee, ending a decadelong reign that has been critical to her resource-dependent state, 61 percent of which is federally owned and managed by an assortment of land agencies under the panel’s jurisdiction.

"I reflect on the fact that for the past 10 years I’ve been either the chairman or ranking member of the Energy Committee," she told E&E News in an interview in her office last month. "Wow. How’d that happen?"

Murkowski says she’s focused on making the most of her final two years as chairwoman of the panel, acknowledging the benefits that have accrued to her state given her energy clout — which is augmented by the additional gavel she wields as the top Republican on the Interior-Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.

"I can’t think of when the next time may be when Alaska will have a chairman of the Energy Committee," she said.

The relinquishment of her prized gavel also comes as the clock ticks toward another political milestone: the end of her third full Senate term in 2022.

Murkowski, who avoids the political spotlight as much as she can, noted almost gleefully that a decision on whether to run again is "still a lifetime away, thank you."

But even while the ranks of GOP moderates continue to shrink as the party adapts to the hard-line populism of President Trump, Murkowski is showing no signs that she’s considering following the exodus of Senate centrists like Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Tennessee’s Bob Corker, both of whom left Congress at the end of last year instead of seeking uphill fights for re-election after clashing with Trump.

Murkowski, too, has tangled with the president but so far appears to have suffered no major political consequences from doing so. Having delivered on ANWR, she has other grand legislative ambitions for Alaska’s Arctic, and as she ascends the seniority ranks in her caucus, she has options for making those goals a reality if she decides to stick around.

Perhaps most significantly, even in the ups and downs of the Trump presidency, Murkowski insists she still likes her job.

"Even on the tough days I so enjoy the opportunity to work on things that I think can make a difference for Alaska and for the country," she said.

An ‘unpredictable’ president

While the timing of her next re-election has eased the near-term political risks of crossing Trump, Murkowski has nonetheless trod carefully in her dealings with the president during his first two years.

It’s been a bumpy ride.

Just weeks after he was sworn in, Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) had a friendly Oval Office meeting with Trump to make their case for opening ANWR and to highlight other Alaska resource issues (E&E Daily, March 9, 2017).

But that early comity evaporated a few months later when Murkowski received an angry call from Trump, who was upset over her reluctance to support the Republican repeal of President Obama’s signature health care law (Greenwire, July 27, 2017).

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska). Photo credit: Geof Koss/E&E News
Murkowski surrounded by reporters on Capitol Hill earlier this year. | Geof Koss/E&E News

Reportedly acting at Trump’s behest, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke later told both Alaska senators that a Murkowski "no" vote on the Obamacare repeal would threaten resource development on federal lands in the state. But Murkowski stood her ground, voting with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Maine’s Susan Collins to keep the law intact.

Trump also attacked Murkowski last year for voting "present" on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, telling The Washington Post at the time that she would "never recover" for splitting with him on the crucial nomination. "I think the people from Alaska will never forgive her for what she did," Trump said.

But Alaska voters in recent years have rewarded Murkowski’s independence by re-electing her with support from across the political spectrum.

She remains vigilant of challenges on her right flank at home after tea party favorite Joe Miller nearly ended her political career in 2010 by besting her in the Republican primary. But Murkowski went on to wage a write-in campaign and saved her Senate seat, demonstrating that she can win at home without the GOP political apparatus.

While her Kavanaugh vote hurt her with Republicans in the state, polling conducted in the aftermath of the bruising Supreme Court fight also showed Murkowski got a favorability boost among liberals and moderates — two voting blocs whose past support has helped her offset GOP voters disaffected with her moderate positions.

After Trump’s attacks over her Kavanaugh vote, she requested a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to "check in" on her standing in the GOP caucus. The pair emerged from McConnell’s office a short time later laughing.

And despite Trump’s threats on Obamacare, long-standing resource fights in Alaska have been resolved in Murkowski’s favor, including ANWR, the proposed construction of a gravel road through the remote Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, eased development of oil and gas in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, as well as improved access to the Tongass National Forest.

After years of clashing with the Obama administration, Murkowski says Trump’s actions have helped steady the state’s economy, which has struggled in recent years as global oil prices have dropped.

"The economy is healthier, the jobs numbers are better, it’s just things are looking up in the state right now, and I will credit a cooperative administration that has the same views and policy objectives when it comes to resource development," she said. "That has been a blessing."

But Murkowski also dislikes the chaos of Trump’s presidency and has been dismayed by the slow pace of filling out the ranks of political appointees at the federal agencies. While she’s survived Trump’s tweets and taunts, she chooses her words carefully when speaking about the president.

"Where it has been challenging, the president is just so unpredictable, and with that unpredictability I think he generates his own opposition in certain areas where perhaps it might otherwise not have materialized," she said.

Illustrating the point is the record-long government shutdown that ended last week, after Trump agreed to sign a short-term continuing resolution that reopened agencies and gave Congress a few more weeks to negotiate on the president’s border wall with Mexico.

Murkowski saw her own Interior-Environment appropriations bill — a longtime priority for her — stall along with five other spending bills as they became leverage for the president in his quest to get Congress to give him $5.7 billion for the wall.

"To have everything held hostage to one demand on one issue … is extraordinarily frustrating because of the commitment that was made from lawmakers to reform a process that had just gone bad," she said of last year’s truce between Senate leaders that had the appropriations process humming — until Trump intervened to try to bend Congress to his will on the border wall.

Her frustration over the shutdown prompted Murkowski to stand and implore Trump to end the shutdown when he visited Senate Republicans earlier this month to try to rally the caucus behind his hard-line position in the talks. "He was respectful," she later told E&E News.

Last week, she voted for Trump’s plan to end the shutdown, saying she wanted to be "fair to the president’s priorities," but also joined with five other GOP senators and Democrats in supporting a short-term CR to reopen government.

Speaking on the Senate floor after those votes, Murkowski also echoed a central Democratic argument of the monthlong shutdown, which ended when Trump relented the next day.

"Don’t give up hope because now is the time that we all must come together to address these issues," she said. "But you can’t do it when the government is shut down."

Reinvigorating ‘America’s Arctic’

While energy has long been Murkowski’s most visible issue, in recent years she’s taken on another major legislative endeavor: convincing the federal government to recognize the strategic importance of the Arctic waters off her state’s northern coast and invest accordingly.

From her Appropriations perch, Murkowski has fought for years for funding for new icebreakers, an area where the United States lags far behind other Arctic nations, especially Russia.

Yet she has bigger plans, as well. Legislation she introduced in December would authorize the construction of a deepwater port in the U.S. Arctic, while also taking steps to prepare the region for safe shipping that is expected as sea ice retreats from climate change.

"The Arctic is a region of global importance and should be treated as a national priority," she said in a floor speech announcing the legislation. "The United States must invest in the infrastructure and assets needed to support a comprehensive Arctic strategy. The time for aspiration is over. It’s time that we get to work and move ahead with a plan that meets the challenge that the Arctic represents for America."

A deepwater port would benefit energy development, both on- and offshore, in the state, she said, but it would also help diversify Alaska’s resource-dependent economy, not to mention create well-paying construction jobs associated with building-related infrastructure in the remote region.

But, as Murkowski is quick to point out, the benefits of an Arctic port extend beyond her home state.

"Yes, Alaska needs it, but in fairness the country needs it," she said. "And I think the world does, too. And my frustration has been that if that we don’t engage, if we don’t have a deepwater port, if we don’t have a transshipment area, if we don’t participate in outlining what the rules of the road are when it comes to shipping, it’s going to be defined for us."

She has been frustrated with both the Obama and Trump administrations’ attitudes to the Arctic, which she attributes to the politics of climate change.

"My frustration with [the Obama administration’s] view of the Arctic was their view was solely through the lens of climate," she said. "Now we have an administration that isn’t really thinking about the Arctic, and I think they’re not thinking about the Arctic because they’re afraid that people are going to take it right back to climate. The Arctic is about more than climate. The Arctic is about the people, it’s about the environment, it’s about commerce, it’s a whole section of the world. It’s about disease and health and education."

Adding to Murkowski’s frustration is that other Arctic nations are already well ahead of the United States in terms of development, including Russia, which she says is "owning their Arctic. And we’re just sitting there."

Like the push to open ANWR to drilling, Murkowski’s Arctic development plans may be a multiyear process of getting buy-in from her congressional colleagues and the executive branch. And, like ANWR, seniority could help pave the way.

‘It’s a lot of responsibility’

What it may be lacking in numbers, Alaska’s three-member congressional delegation makes up for in seniority. Rep. Don Young (R) is the most senior member of the House, where he’s served since 1973. And Murkowski, now in her 16th year in the Senate, has slowly but surely climbed the ranks of seniority, as well.

Young shows no sign of retiring, but at 85 he is inevitably nearing the end of his career. With Sullivan still in his first Senate term, it’s the 61-year-old Murkowski who is bearing the seniority load for Alaska in the Senate.

With the retirement at the end of this Congress of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), there are just two Republican senators ahead of Murkowski in seniority on the Appropriations Committee: current Chairman Richard Shelby of Alabama and Collins. (McConnell also has more seniority but shows no signs of stepping down as majority leader.)

Though she said she was unaware of how high she will have risen in the ranks on Appropriations, Murkowski acknowledged that one day chairing the panel "is an attractive possibility."

It’s also a position once held by her mentor Stevens, who used the perch to tend to his home state’s needs during his stints as Appropriations chairman between 1997 and 2005.

Murkowski acknowledged that she feels a burden to provide for her state that shifted to her when "Uncle Ted" lost re-election and left the Senate in 2009 after a 40-year career. He then died in a plane crash the following year.

"It’s a lot of responsibility, and the responsibility has just really accumulated," she said. "And it’s not just responsibility because of the chairmanships, I mean that is clear."

In the last few years, Murkowski said, she has increasingly had "others looking to me to … whether it’s a mentor, whether it’s women who feel like they didn’t have a voice, whether it is those who just feel strongly that there needs to be a more independent view rather than just following whatever the party line is. And that responsibility has changed in a way that I could not have anticipated and I think initially I was very uncomfortable with."

But she said she’s growing into the role.

"I feel like I have matured a little bit and in saying ‘OK, to whom much is given, much is expected’ and so deal with it," she said.