Alaska Dispatch: Murkowski, Cantwell set aside politics to talk energy

Depending on where you're coming from, the words "women's conference" might conjure for you an image of church ladies sitting around discussing next year's social schedule, or hairy-legged militants burning their bras, or maybe a bunch of public health professionals talking about how to promote prenatal vitamins and annual mammograms.

You probably don't think of energy policy.

But that's what was on the table Saturday morning when Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) took the stage for a question-and-answer session on the final day of the National Women's Leadership Summit in Anchorage.

In a show of amicable bipartisanship, Murkowski and Cantwell entered the room together, so it was hard to tell whether the standing ovation their entrance prompted was for one woman or the other (or both). The spirit of collaboration and common ground was maintained throughout the event; Murkowski touted Alaska's potential as a hotbed of renewable energy opportunities (progress on which, she said, sometimes feels "frustratingly slow"), saying that the cost of such projects "shouldn't be what limits us," while Cantwell, a self-described "passionate environmentalist," talked at length about ways in which the U.S. can reposition itself as an economic and manufacturing power in the energy industry.

Both Murkowski and Cantwell stressed the need to find balance between working toward greener energy and creating and protecting American jobs. They talked about a future in which family homes generate their own electricity, selling it back into the grid -- and about small steps anyone can take today.

Energy, Murkowski said, is the kind of issue no one cares about until they have to.

"In our country, there's kind of this Immaculate Conception concept of energy: It just happens," she said. "It hadn't really been the dinner table discussion. It needs to be the dinner table discussion."

She brought up the 2008 avalanche in Juneau, after which capitol residents, faced with exorbitantly expensive diesel-powered electricity, took extreme measures to keep their electric bills low.

"It takes a change in your mindset," Murkowski said.

My prediction about the conference was right -- nobody called anybody else a socialist, at least as far as I know. The back and forth between the senators as they answered questions about resource distribution, energy efficiency, biomass and the CLEAR Act seemed genuinely friendly -- a strange island of cooperation in the roiling sea of contemporary American politics. In fact, everyone in the room -- from the Shell executives to the environmentalists to the BlueGreen Alliance rep from Ohio -- seemed genuinely happy with the experience they'd had. As the event ended and the senators received another standing ovation, Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" blared through the Marriott ballroom (I kid you not).

The event was so rosy and positive and cooperative, in fact, that it seemed a little -- well, unsustainable. In a country where battle lines are drawn along discussion threads on Free Republic and the Daily Kos and politically motivated name calling seems to be at an all-time high, does the progress made at an event like the National Women's Leadership Summit -- where participants seem to have genuinely set aside their individual agendas in the interest of honest discussion -- actually translate to the real world?

That was the question I brought to Cantwell and Murkowski at the post-event press conference.

First of all, Murkowski said, politics is hardly the real world. (Fair enough.) And yes, she said, the current political climate is emotional.

"It not easy right now," Murkowski said. "But there are pockets of hope."

Murkowski, Cantwell and the other women of the Senate sit down for dinner regularly to talk about everything from family to fiscal policy.

"There are no notes, there are no staffs and there are no leaks," Murkowski said. "We may disagree on cap and trade ... but we can sit down together."

Of course, it wouldn't have been an energy discussion without some talk of the Gulf coast oil spill -- and when it finally came up at the end of the press conference, it was the one moment at which Murkowski and Cantwell showed their political differences. Murkowski, who was criticized by some after blocking an increase in the oil spill liability cap, said that while the Gulf spill has made it clear some revisions need to be made to federal regulations, it's important that any new laws passed are "not just an immediate reflex to what is happening in the Gulf." She also called for a "transparent and helpful" claims process.

"We don't want the people of the Gulf to be victims of the litigation process we saw here," she said, after hinting that lawyers made out better from the Exxon Valdez spill than anyone else. (Unlike Rep. Don Young, however, she did describe the spill as a "disaster.")

Cantwell's response more or less boiled down to three words: better industry oversight.

It was a subtle reminder that the two women are, in fact, on opposite sides of the aisle -- and that just because two people can talk about an issue calmly and respectfully, that doesn't mean they have to agree on it.

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Source: By Maia Nolan. Published June 07, 2010