Lisa Murkowski Is Poised and Ready to Raise Hell at Interior

The senator has a bone to pick with the Interior Department and she may soon have two gavels to batter it with.

National Journal hosts "Countdown to Coppenhagen" on November 4, 2009 with NJ's political director Ron Brownstein interviewing Senator John Kerry D-MA and Senator Lisa Murkowski.
National Journal
Ben Geman
March 27, 2014, 10:12 a.m.

Two facts should keep In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Sally Jew­ell awake at night.

First, if Re­pub­lic­ans win the Sen­ate, Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski will wield tre­mend­ous lever­age over Jew­ell’s de­part­ment. She would lead both the En­ergy and Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee that over­sees the de­part­ment and the Ap­pro­pri­ations sub­com­mit­tee that con­trols its budget.

Second, Murkowski is ut­terly furi­ous with the In­teri­or De­part­ment these days.

When the pair met privately Tues­day, Murkowski re­minded Jew­ell of the storm on the ho­ri­zon. “I told her there is a like­li­hood that she would be deal­ing with me in a dif­fer­ent po­s­i­tion and per­haps a couple dif­fer­ent po­s­i­tions,” Murkowski said in an in­ter­view.

At the heart of Murkowski’s fury is a pro­posed road through fed­er­al land that the sen­at­or ar­gues is a mat­ter of life and death for a vil­lage of rur­al Alaskans.

In Decem­ber, after years of study, In­teri­or re­jec­ted a long-pro­posed road that would go through the Izem­bek Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge in south­ern Alaska, find­ing that the pro­ject could be dev­ast­at­ing for wild­life.

Alaska politi­cians have for dec­ades now ar­gued that a road is needed to help res­id­ents of the re­mote, largely Aleut vil­lage of King Cove get ac­cess to emer­gency med­ic­al care. A roughly 20-mile road would give the roughly 1,000-per­son vil­lage ac­cess to an all-weath­er air­port in Cold Bay, which they could use for flights to a hos­pit­al in An­chor­age some 600 miles away.

It’s a sig­na­ture top­ic for Murkowski, who is bat­tling In­teri­or’s de­cision to scuttle a pro­ject ad­voc­ates call a mat­ter of life and death for get­ting people out in emer­gen­cies.

Ac­cord­ing to Murkowski’s of­fice, 19 people have died in plane crashes try­ing to get people out of King Cove, where harsh weath­er can make air ac­cess treach­er­ous, or be­cause they could not get timely med­ic­al care.

The battle is a mi­cro­cosm of long-stand­ing ten­sion between res­id­ents of Alaska, a rugged place with a strong liber­tari­an streak, and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that owns more than half the land in the vast state.

Murkowski is already us­ing her rank­ing-mem­ber perch to push In­teri­or to re­verse its de­cision. But giv­en the power of twin gavels next ses­sion, she would have much more power to try and use spend­ing bills to re­quire ap­prov­al of the road — and to bat­ter In­teri­or if she doesn’t get that and oth­er policy con­ces­sions.

“I am not look­ing for a pound of flesh from Sally Jew­ell. I want her to fig­ure out how she is go­ing to get us this road and I want to work with her to make that hap­pen,” Murkowski told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

But Murkowski is fully aware of the lever­age she’ll gain if Re­pub­lic­ans re­gain Sen­ate con­trol and she takes the gavel of the In­teri­or and En­vir­on­ment Ap­pro­pri­ations Sub­com­mit­tee.

“I think that that is something that tends to get the at­ten­tion of those that have to an­swer to the Ap­pro­pri­ations Com­mit­tee when they come in for their budget, so you can have some mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tions,” she said. “It gives you more tools in your tool­box if you are sit­ting there with the gavel in your hand.”

Those over­sight powers that come along with the gavel would give Murkowski the abil­ity to make life more dif­fi­cult for In­teri­or, a sprawl­ing agency that Murkowski could sub­ject to ex­am­in­a­tion that rivals the most un­com­fort­able doc­tor’s of­fice vis­its.

And her fury over the road isn’t go­ing away any time soon: “The no­tion from your de­part­ment that you must pro­tect Alaska from Alaska nat­ives, our first people, it’s in­sult­ing, and that’s the way that Alaskans feel,” Murkowski said at an Ap­pro­pri­ations sub­com­mit­tee hear­ing Wed­nes­day on In­teri­or’s budget. She said In­teri­or is say­ing, in ef­fect, that Alaskans “can­not care for the land and the an­im­als and the birds and still provide for a safe, re­li­able ac­cess.”

The dis­pute hasn’t gone un­noticed by oth­er law­makers.

“I think Sec­ret­ary Jew­ell is one of the pres­id­ent’s more able ap­point­ments, and Sen­at­or Murkowski is a very re­spec­ted sen­at­or, and I don’t think it’s good for the Sen­ate or the coun­try for the two of them to not be able to work to­geth­er for the next three years be­cause Sen­at­or Murkowski might very well be chair­man of both the En­ergy Com­mit­tee and the Ap­pro­pri­ations sub­com­mit­tee,” said Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der, a Ten­ness­ee Re­pub­lic­an.

“Our sys­tem of checks and bal­ances means that some­times the views of a United States sen­at­or have to pre­vail,” Al­ex­an­der said.

Jew­ell ab­sorbed a broad­side from Murkowski on Wed­nes­day when she ap­peared be­fore the Ap­pro­pri­ations sub­com­mit­tee.

The Alaska sen­at­or wore a scarf em­blazoned with im­ages of the In­cred­ible Hulk — a homage to the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who marched in­to Sen­ate floor battles wear­ing Hulk ties — and launched in­to a lengthy at­tack on Jew­ell’s de­cision.

“I will not stand by and watch as more Alaskan lives are put at risk, put at risk po­ten­tially to die. I will not let this is­sue die,” Murkowski said.

Jew­ell, for her part, is in no mood to es­cal­ate the battle.

“Sen­at­or Murkowski is very pas­sion­ate about the cit­izens of the state of Alaska and I ap­pre­ci­ate her pas­sion along with that of [Alaska Demo­crat­ic] Sen­at­or Be­gich, and that shows through in her words,” Jew­ell told re­port­ers af­ter­ward.

But she’s also stand­ing be­hind the Izem­bek de­cision, which re­jec­ted a land swap that would have brought more acre­age in­to the refuge but al­lowed the road to pro­ceed. In­teri­or’s form­al “re­cord of de­cision” in Decem­ber finds that the road and the activ­it­ies it would bring would lead to “sig­ni­fic­ant de­grad­a­tion of ir­re­place­able eco­lo­gic­al re­sources.”

Beds of eel­grass in the refuge feed over 98 per­cent of the world’s Pa­cific black brant be­fore the birds make the non­stop flight to Mex­ico for the winter, the doc­u­ment notes, adding the birds are “par­tic­u­larly sens­it­ive” to dis­turb­ance.

More broadly, the refuge provides hab­it­at for tun­dra swans, em­per­or geese, Steller’s ei­ders, bears, cari­bou, and oth­er an­im­als.

“The Izem­bek Na­tion­al Wild­life Refuge is a nar­row isth­mus between two la­goons and it is a crit­ic­al nest­ing ground for a num­ber of spe­cies, some threatened or en­dangered and oth­ers not. It is also a very nar­row mi­grat­ory route,” Jew­ell said Wed­nes­day.

“It is a very, very im­port­ant and unique hab­it­at and the de­term­in­a­tion by the Fish and Wild­life Ser­vice is that a road would be very dis­rupt­ive through that area,” she told re­port­ers.

The Decem­ber de­cision doc­u­ment notes that $37.5 mil­lion was provided in a late 1990s spend­ing bill that im­proved trans­port­a­tion ac­cess and med­ic­al ser­vices in the area.

Go­ing for­ward, In­teri­or says it’s com­mit­ted to work­ing with the com­munity in the re­gion and the state to find al­tern­at­ives, such as im­proved mar­ine op­tions and more use of Coast Guard heli­copters in emer­gen­cies.

But Murkowski bat­ted that aside Wed­nes­day, call­ing all oth­er al­tern­at­ives too costly or risky or both, and said her talks with top Coast Guard of­fi­cials show that op­tion is a non­starter, re­quir­ing two $26 mil­lion heli­copters and 20 ad­di­tion­al per­son­nel.

“I will do everything, everything in my power for as long as I am here to en­able the people of King Cove to re­ceive prop­er emer­gency ac­cess that the rest of us take for gran­ted,” Murkowski said at the hear­ing.

“I will not,” she said, “get over this is­sue.”

That means In­teri­or is in for a rough ride if Re­pub­lic­ans pick up the six seats needed to win the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity.

“It means that Jew­ell had bet­ter find a way to kiss and make up,” said Steph­en Brown, a lob­by­ist for Te­soro. “And I don’t think flowers or candy will suf­fice.”

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