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Defying Labels

Sen. Lisa Murkowski marches to the beat of her own drum.


No absolutist: Lisa Murkowski(Chet Susslin)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski stunned her party last year when, after being unseated in Alaska’s Republican primary by tea party candidate Joe Miller, she launched a write-in campaign as an independent—and won. She lost her position in the Senate GOP leadership, but she still has clout as the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski spoke with National Journal this week. Edited excerpts follow.

NJ You’re a big proponent of nuclear energy. What does the disaster in Japan do to the future of nuclear power?


MURKOWSKI Watching things unfold in Japan right now just makes me feel sick. I spent some time in college in Japan, and the family that I lived with had a summer home up on the northern coast, in the same area where we’re seeing so much of this devastation. As an Alaskan, our No. 1 trading partner has always been Japan.

I think it’s important to recognize that what happened in Japan—with these dual acts of God—is not an everyday event. Does it mean we completely throw out nuclear? No. Does it mean we need to critically examine all safety aspects of the process? Yes. But I am worried. It seemed like nuclear was just coming into the conversation between both parties. I hope we don’t go backwards.

NJ President Obama included expanded nuclear power in his proposed “clean-energy standard” specifically to get a compromise with Republicans. If nuclear energy is stalled, what happens to the chances for a deal?


MURKOWSKI If—and this is a big if—nuclear is not going to be incorporated into a [clean-energy standard], is there enough in there for Republicans to embrace it? Not if we haven’t done more to build out increased domestic production [such as] clean-coal technology. If you take nuclear out, it really changes the discussion entirely.

NJ You’ve introduced a bill to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in every Congress, year in, year out.

MURKOWSKI Like spring!

NJ For more than 20 years, that effort has gone nowhere. Will this time be different?


MURKOWSKI Who could have anticipated the unrest that we’re seeing over in the Middle East and North Africa? We’re seeing oil at over $100 a barrel, with the projected annual price at $105 on average over the balance of the year. There are some things at play that were not in play in the past. I think that can precipitate movement on ANWR that you have not seen before.

NJ After last fall, you’re back in the Senate in very different circumstances. How do you see your
role now?

MURKOWSKI I would hope that I’m viewed as a broker of good ideas. Not necessarily Republican ideas or Democrat ideas. Why should the Democrats have the label of being the only ones who are concerned about our environment? I’m a Republican; I care about our environment. I want us to have clean air, clean water, but I also want to have a job and want my kids to have jobs. I would like to think I could be in the middle of that conversation to bring people together.

NJ Do you feel more independent now?

MURKOWSKI Mm-hmm! I’ve not ever neatly fit anyone’s label, whether now or when I first came into office eight years ago. I am returned to the Senate not as my party’s nominee but as a person who put myself out there as a third option between the Democratic nominee and the Republican nominee. Having said that, I didn’t change my party label. I’m still a Republican; I still conference with Republicans. But I take my charge from Alaskans to represent all people in the state—Republicans, and Democrats, and independents, and greens, and everybody
in between.

NJ How has your relationship with the Republican Party leaders changed?

MURKOWSKI It hasn’t really at all. I still have good conversations with all those guys.

NJ What do you think of the Senate Tea Party Caucus?

MURKOWSKI The caucus itself? I’m not quite sure who’s in the caucus. I think it’s [Rand] Paul and [Mike] Lee.

NJ What do you think of the new members who came in with tea party backing?

MURKOWSKI It’s going to be interesting to see how their political efforts, as well as the issues they tend to embrace, advance. They’ve only been here for a couple of months. I think it’s fair to say that, on the House side, you’ve got a lot of folks who came in with a very conservative philosophy, an absolutist ap­proach that this is the way we need to do things.

NJ Is that approach counterproductive?

MURKOWSKI If it’s an absolutist approach, I think it is. Unless you have the numbers. Then you just roll over everybody.

I think the legislative process, by design, is a process that is meant to bring about consensus. Consensus comes about through compromise, and compromise is not a bad word. It is not giving up your principles, not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s recognizing that good ideas can come from many quarters. 

This article appears in the March 19, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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