Come January, when the Republican majority takes over the U.S. Senate, Sen. Lisa Murkowski will have the power to strike a double whammy.
She will wield two gavels: chair of the Energy and Natural Resources committee and chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee.
Political observers say it’s unusual to see such a combination of chairmanships. Essentially, Murkowski holds the checkbook for the Interior Department. With control of its budget, she can fund her priorities or cut spending for projects she opposes, which could be problematic for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
The two have clashed on an emergency road between the two Alaska Peninsula communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Jewell has blocked the road, because it would cut through the Izembeck National Wildlife Refuge and its environmentally sensitive bird habitat.
Murkowski clearly relishes her new role.
“I think the Secretary needs to recognize that she has to work with us. She has to work with me,” said Murkowski. “I think she recognizes I’m in a different position now as well, so we’ll have an opportunity to talk about it.”
Murkowski has accepted an invitation from Jewell to talk about a variety of Alaska issues. The meeting will take place early next month. And Murkowski intends to ask her to reconsider her decision on the road.
“I think the Secretary has seen this decision as one that she may have thought it was far enough away, it was remote enough, and there was just few enough people that no one is going to pay attention,” Murkowski said. “I think she sorely misjudged.”
Jessica Kershaw, a spokesperson for the Interior Department, responded by email.
“The Secretary respects the Senator’s passion for Alaska and is optimistic they can continue to work on a wide range of issues that are important to Alaskans,” she wrote.
Jewell had earlier committed to working with King Cove to find a viable alternative to the road. Murkowski says she’s been waiting for an update.
On energy issues, Murkowski expects the change in leadership to help unplug some of the previous political bottlenecks.
“I think it’s fair to say there is pent-up demand on the energy front for legislation,” Murkowski said. “When you think about it, we haven’t had real substantive energy legislation pass the Congress and be signed into law since 2007.”
Murkowski blames the current Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. She says Reid changed the procedure for bills so that they would rarely get to the floor for debate and amendment.
She called the Energy Committee one of the most productive. But due to Reid’s policies, the bills went nowhere, she says, including some with bi-partisan support, such as the Shaheen-Portman energy efficiency bill.
The Keystone XL Pipeline plan was another major piece of legislation Reid stymied. Murkowski believes the bill will stand a better chance after Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell takes over as Majority Leader. McConnell, she says, has promised to return to the traditional practice of letting more bills go to the floor for debate, particularly those supported by the GOP.
Among Murkowski’s other energy priorities: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration, promoting natural gas exports and expanding both offshore and onshore drilling. Murkowski also believes it is time for a new national energy policy that reflects the country’s abundance of oil and gas production. She says oil and gas development from ANWR could be a part of this.
Typically, the push to open the refuge to drilling has been more successful during times of energy shortages, but Murkowski sees it differently.
“If we, as the United States, can be a bigger contributor, a more global contributor to the world energy market, that advantages us in a lot of different ways,” she said.
Her Republican counterpart in the House, Rep. Don Young is less optimistic about ANWR. He believes there are too many Democrats in both houses to block development in the refuge. But he’s hopeful the new Republican leadership will ease some of the political paralysis. If so, that bodes well for Murkowski.
“If that happens, Lisa is going to be in a great position to do a lot of good for Alaska,” said Young. “It goes to being on Appropriations, being chairman of Energy. And it goes back to building a sort of Ted legacy.”
Young is referring to the late Sen. Ted Stevens. While some say it may be premature to lay claim to Stevens’ record of accomplishment, others say Murkowski’s rise to the top has been fast.
It’s been 12 years since her father, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the job, when he left the Senate to become governor of Alaska. Since then, she won a historic write-in campaign and now ranks 13th in seniority among Senate Republicans and 27th out of 100 senators. Murkowski made a big jump to the top third in Senate seniority recently, after a number of her colleagues retired.
After word on Election Night that the Republicans had regained control of the Senate, she raised a chair in the air to celebrate her role as incoming Energy chairman.
But how successful she is in using it to fend off opposition from Democrats remains to be seen.