Politico: Energy watchers eye Murkowski

Losing her primary, alienating party leaders and giving up a prominent post in the GOP caucus have worked out well for Lisa Murkowski.

Now the plums keep piling up for the Alaska senator: Last week she became the top Republican on the appropriations subcommittee overseeing Interior and EPA, in addition to the lead GOP spot she already holds on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

That means she’ll be a crucial player in decisions on climate rules, offshore oil and gas drilling, clean energy standards and other issues that will keep her under the microscope. She’s also in a position to maintain the cordial working relationship with Democrats that helped inspire last year’s tea party rebellion against her.

“Quite frankly, she’s probably stronger now than she ever was before,” said Rep. Don Young, a fellow Alaska Republican, adding that he never expected her to be frozen out of the party leadership. “They need her.”

Said one former Senate GOP leadership aide, “She has strong political leverage as one of the only female Republican senators in the conference, and someone who possibly has an ax to grind.”

Murkowski says she hasn’t changed at all.

“I’m even wearing the same clothes I wore in the last Congress,” she told POLITICO, walking back to her Senate office from the Capitol recently. “I really haven’t changed. I’m in a better mood, how about that?”

That outcome seemed improbable in August, when she lost the GOP primary to tea party candidate Joe Miller, prompting her to run a write-in campaign despite some party leaders’ desire that she concede defeat.

At the time, she openly criticized tea party champion and Miller supporter Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) for costing Republicans the Senate majority by pushing unelectable conservative candidates. Miller also had the endorsement of Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in the general election.

But any ill will seems to have faded, and Murkowski has maintained a good relationship with McConnell, according to aides in both offices. There is no evidence that Republican leaders are trying to pressure her not to toe the centrist line too much.

“That would be counterproductive; she’s got six years left,” said one former Senate GOP aide.

Gerald McBeath, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said Murkowski is on a pendulum swing : She was a moderate before her reelection effort, drifted to the right in the campaign against Miller and will now swing back to the center.

“She realizes her electoral victory was based on a broad coalition that includes a lot of Democrats,” he said.

This Congress has not yet had many key votes to indicate which way Murkowski will veer. But crucial decisions are coming.

Murkowski has been in the center of talks regarding delaying or stopping EPA from implementing climate rules, but for her that debate has less to do with party than with the perspective of many of her Alaskan constituents. She has a lifetime score of just 18 out of 100 from the League of Conservation Voters, and she unsuccessfully offered a resolution last year disapproving of EPA regulating greenhouse-gas emissions.

On those types of issues, Murkowski’s perspective is similar to that of some Democrats who also support increased oil and gas production and dislike what they consider onerous regulations.

“Both Alaska and Louisiana share so many issues in common,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), a longtime member of the energy panel and a new member of the Interior appropriations subcommittee. “She’s been in the vanguard of helping us get our drilling started up again in the gulf, and I’ll be working with her on some Arctic issues.”

In the new Congress, Murkowski has largely shied from committing to any particular plan to delay or thwart the agency’s regulations.

Another closely watched matter will be her relationship with Senate energy committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), at times a centrist in his own party.

It’s difficult to find many congressional panels in the last Congress that showed a tighter working relationship than that between Bingaman and Murkowski.

They both signed off on a broad energy plan in their committee that included a renewable-power mandate, more offshore oil and gas drilling, energy efficiency and investments in transmission.

They also helped shepherd legislation responding to last year’s BP spill, although that was later torpedoed by bickering in the full Senate as part of a broader energy and spill package.

During last year’s campaign, Murkowski mentioned Bingaman and Delaware Democrat Tom Carper when asked for senators she particularly respected.

“And my Republican opponent jumped all over that and said: ‘A-ha! Proof positive that you’re not a real Republican,’” Murkowski said recently. “I don’t happen to think that’s how you necessarily operate around here. You build relationships, working relationships, personal relationships, and hopefully they can transcend political labels.”

One possible parallel for Murkowski is what happened in 2006, when Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman won reelection as an independent after losing the Democratic primary. He said he felt liberated.

Murkowski too is "liberated in a lot of ways," said Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "She didn't have to kowtow to her party. She is caucusing with Republicans but she doesn't owe anything to the leadership."

At a closed-door session in September, Senate Republicans rejected a bid by DeMint to strip Murkowski of her leadership role on the energy panel after she’d decided to run as a write-in candidate. "I think McConnell and a couple of others made sure they didn’t do that because they all of a sudden realized that if she won that would really be a problem for them," Ornstein said.

"I do not expect her to be a regular thorn in the side of her own party's leaders," he said. "But she's going to pick her spots."



By:  By: Darren Goode. Originally published on February 11, 2011