Murkowski Walks Delicate Line as Ranking Member
In the summer of 2007, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) joined a small group of Senators to sponsor a cap-and-trade bill that aimed to find middle ground in the increasingly heated debate over global warming. Spearheaded by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), the Low Carbon Economy Act represented a good-faith effort by moderates from both parties to reduce emissions without sacrificing economic growth.
The group won praise for its work, but the Senate’s focus soon shifted to competing legislation by Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and now-retired Sen. John Warner (R-Va.). Despite months of negotiations, that bill sank on the Senate floor last June after Republicans painted it as a job killer and linked it to rising gasoline prices.
Murkowski was traveling during the failed cloture vote that sealed the bill’s fate, but in an interview last month, she said she would have voted with her fellow Republicans against ending debate.
“It wasn’t ready for prime time,” she said of the measure, which called for greater emissions reductions than the Bingaman-Specter bill, but at a higher cost.
But as partisan rancor over energy and global warming again heats up on Capitol Hill, Murkowski says she still feels a responsibility to address global warming, which is already on display in the state where she was born and raised.
“For me, when we talk about climate change and what is happening, it’s not a theoretical exercise,” she said. “I go up to Alaska and I go out to some of the villages and I see for myself that we’re seeing changes in the land. It’s real. I’ve got villages in Alaska that are literally on the edge of the ocean and dropping in.”
But just as Murkowski calls it “wise and sensible to do what we can to reduce our emissions,” she feels just as strongly that the economic costs must be a factor in determining how to do so. “If there’s a responsibility to help reduce emissions, let’s figure out how to do it in a way that is reasonable and responsible,” she said.
Her tone on warming stands in marked contrast to the strident rhetoric employed by House Republicans in their fight against the energy-climate bill advancing in that chamber. Murkowski’s views are also noteworthy in light of her elevated status among Senate Republicans in the 111th Congress, where she has emerged as a leading GOP voice on energy matters and the ranking member on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
But Murkowski rejects the notion that her support for cap-and-trade is at odds with her new role. “I’d like to think that people would look at the perspective I bring to the discussion and would listen to what I have to say,” she said.
However, she acknowledges the paradox that she faces in representing a state whose economy depends largely on producing the very fossil fuels blamed for warming the planet.
“You’ve got a situation where your state is very reliant on the oil and gas industry, reliant for our revenues, reliant for our jobs, and then you look at the fact that we are seeing a change in climate,” she said.
Indeed, as the top Republican on the Energy panel, she is pressing to expand oil and gas drilling in the energy bill that the committee is working on. But at the same time, she’s also promoting renewables, nuclear power, efficiency measures and any clean-energy technologies that will reduce emissions from fossil fuels.
Murkowski has also pushed back against President Barack Obama’s efforts to reverse the energy policies of the Bush administration, which largely favored oil and gas production. With Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), she successfully led a filibuster against Obama’s nominee for deputy Interior secretary, David Hayes, who won confirmation only after Interior Secretary Ken Salazar agreed to address their concerns over canceled lease sales.
Alaska environmentalists have clashed repeatedly with Murkowski over her support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but they acknowledge she has shown a willingness to listen to their concerns over climate change that was lacking in her predecessor — her father, former Sen. (and ex-Gov.) Frank Murkowski (R).
“She has at least indicated an interest,” said Jim Adams, the director of the Alaska office for the National Wildlife Federation. But he said environmentalists will be looking to see whether Murkowski supports energy and climate legislation on the Senate floor later this year.
Murkowski concedes she still has questions about whether the timing is right for a carbon cap but notes the obvious benefits of engagement.
“There comes a point in time when you see an issue moving ahead and you can either pretend they’re not going to make any headway or you can join in and try to shape it in a way that is not going to hurt the people you represent,” she said. “[There] is not an easy way forward, but I think it’s the responsible approach.”