If Alaska's senior senator, Lisa Murkowski, is ousted in a primary election that is coming down to absentee ballots, it could throw a wrench into Democrats' efforts to pass comprehensive energy and offshore drilling liability legislation, and would make her the sixth Republican to leave the Appropriations committee at the end of this year.
Murkowski is currently losing to attorney Joe Miller by approximately 2,000 votes out of nearly 90,000 cast, with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Murkowski is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and holds a plum position on the Appropriations committee.
From her top position on the Energy committee, Murkowski has had a hand in shaping clean energy and oil spill liability legislation. She was one of four Republicans on the committee who in June 2009 voted in favor of Chairman Jeff Bingaman's clean energy bill, which would establish renewable energy requirements opposed by some utility companies. The second ranking Republican on the committee, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., voted against the legislation -- a sign that there may be less bipartisan cooperation on the panel if he assumes Murkowski's position.
"Sen. Murkowski worked closely with Chairman Bingaman on some clean energy issues, and given his opposition to the American Clean Energy Act, it's unclear if Sen. Burr would do the same," said Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Murkowski is also a lead negotiator on the oil spill liability bill in the Senate, offering an alternative proposal to give the president discretion to set a cap on a case-by-case basis and including an industry-wide sharing of risk. The Democrats' original proposal included unlimited liability on companies, but Democratic Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana were working individually on compromise legislation as the Senate left for recess.
If Murkowski does not maintain her seat, she would also be the sixth Republican to leave her position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, a plum spot usually saved for veteran lawmakers. Republican Appropriations members retiring from the chamber are Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Sam Brownback of Kansas and George Voinovich of Ohio, while Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah lost his primary election earlier this year.
Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz said the number of upcoming GOP vacancies on Appropriations could push Senate Republicans to seriously consider an earmark moratorium similar to the ban adopted by the House Republicans. Murkowski voted against a March amendment from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., to establish an earmark moratorium in the Senate.
"This has not permeated through the leadership yet," said Schatz. "But they lost Sen. Bennett, and now possibly Sen. Murkowski. Given that voters are resisting Washington spending, the biggest issue next to jobs... they are tying all of this together. It is having an impact on a lot of the campaigns."
Schatz noted that Murkowski's challenger had signed CAGW's pledge to not request earmarks.
"This will be the biggest change Alaska will ever see in terms of earmarking," said Schatz. According to CAGW's analysis, Alaska was the state with the highest per capita earmark spending in 2009.
Murkowski used her position on the Appropriations committee in July to attempt to restore funding to Alaska's Denali Commission, a program that funds primary care clinics in the state, which was cut from the Labor-HHS FY 2011 spending bill. Her amendment failed, 18-12.