ANCHORAGE — It was tough to find anyone who was more excited than Sen. Lisa Murkowski at Dan Sullivan’s election night party.
Warming up the crowd before Sullivan entered as final vote tallies were still rolling in, and with the Republican challenger maintaining a lead over incumbent Sen. Mark Begich, Murkowski walked away from the microphone and grabbed a chair, lofting it over her head and asking the crowd if they knew what it meant for the U.S. Senate.
“I’m the chair!” she exclaimed to wild cheers and applause.
Murkowski, who has served in the Senate since 2002, is poised to take the chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that has jurisdiction over the Interior Department. It’s a powerful position for the senior senator from Alaska given the role the agency plays in a state where two-thirds of the land is owned by the federal government.
Even without Sullivan defeating Begich, the Republican Party had already netted a gain of seven seats in the Senate earlier in the evening to swing control away from the Democrats for the first time since 2006.
Not only did the GOP take over the Senate and expand its majority in the House by more than a dozen seats, Democrats were stunned by their party’s losses in governor races in stronghold states Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland.
“It is a wave, and I think it’s a positive wave for our country, positive in what we
can achieve for the country in terms of economic growth, jobs and prosperity,” Murkowski said moments before taking the stage. “If you think about the areas we have seen a real bump up for our nation’s economy, it has been in the energy sector. The chance that we will have as a country with a Republican majority, my ability to set the agenda as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is really quite exciting. This is certainly good news for Alaska and good news for the country.”
Murkowski has spent years preparing for the chairmanship role, and pointed to a series of white papers released since she commissioned the “Energy 2020” report in 2012 that she said lays out the roadmap for where she is going.
“We’ve probably put out four white papers in the last few months,” she said. “They are thoughtful. They are timely. They are really quite provocative in certain areas when you think about oil exports.
“We’ve laid the groundwork, so there’s no surprises about where I’m going to be coming from on the energy perspective. I’m excited about the opportunity to lay this out to my colleagues on the committee, to friends in the Senate and House and to the administration and say, ‘what can we make happen here?’”
She also had strong words for Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who has infuriated Murkowski with her refusal to approve an 11-mile, one-lane road to complete a connection between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay that would provide an all-weather land route for medical evacuations.
Jewell dropped the decision on Alaska two days before Christmas last year and has largely refused to communicate with residents of King Cove and their senator since. Murkowski said the issue is far from over, and an encounter with three women from King Cove at an Anchorage restaurant on election night only steels her resolve.
Murkowski also sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and will directly control Jewell’s budget.
“Sally Jewell is probably looking at the outcome tonight with a little concern about what she may be facing because I will not only be the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, I will also be the chair of the Interior Appropriations subcommittee that has the authority over her budgets,” Murkowski said. “I’m not going to forget those women. I’m not going to forget these families. I’m not going to forget the people of King Cove. I’m not going to give up.”
Murkowski, regarded as one of the most bipartisan members of the Senate, was asked if Jewell made a mistake by getting on her bad side.
“I’m a pretty amenable person and so what I’m trying to do is help the people I represent,” she said. “I’m not about vindication. I’m not about getting up in the morning to poke someone in the eye. What I’m trying to do is help the people of Alaska and I’m going to do that.”
Murkowski also addressed the notion making the rounds among the national media that Republican control of the Senate would only make gridlock and partisanship worse. She said it was up to her party to make sure that will not be the case by returning to regular order that disappeared under outgoing Majority Leader Harry Reid.
“I disagree heartily,” she said. “If Republicans fail to govern, if we say our responsibility is just to win the next cycle, we won’t win. We will not be in charge. We will not be setting the agenda. We will not be legislating. We have our chance now. This is our time and if the American public doesn’t see us doing the hard work, then we’re going to be shown the exit just as the Democrats have been this cycle.”
She said that Reid’s grip on Senate process, with only 11 amendments receiving floor votes in more than a year, was not a good strategy to protect so-called “red state” Democrats such as Begich and the others who lost Nov. 4.
“They had nothing to run on,” she said. “Basically you have to be for your leader or against your leader. What are these Democrats going to do? They’re going to line up with their leader because they want to make sure they stay in those committee positions. That’s not the way to govern. That’s not the way the process should work. The process is about the give and take, about the debate, about the free ability to take up amendments and build bills rather than to cram bills. This is where I think we’re going to start to make a difference.
“Our approach is not going to be to move something through because we have the political muscle to do so. We’re going to move it through because it’s the right thing to do.”
A good place to start would be with the Keystone XL pipeline that has languished under President Obama’s State Department and Reid’s refusal to allow a floor vote to approve it despite overwhelming support both in the Senate and the American public in general.
Asked if a clean vote on a Keystone XL bill was coming, Murkowski said, “Why not? Why would we not? Why would we not do a straight up or down vote on Keystone? Approve the stinkin’ thing after five-and-a-half years with strong bipartisan support and 75 percent of the American people support it. Let’s move it for crying out loud.”
Andrew Jensen is the managing editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.