Politico: ‘The most independent’: Murkowski carves own path in Trump era
The Alaska Republican has no qualms about bucking party leaders or the president.
Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins chatted quietly on the Senate floor before one of the biggest votes of their lives. Too quietly, it turns out.
As the pair prepared to vote on Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious nomination, Murkowski delivered the news that she would vote against the Supreme Court confirmation. But her Maine colleague didn’t quite hear her.
“I told her that I was not going to be there with her. And she actually misunderstood me. She thought I said ‘yes.’ And she said: ‘Well, good,’” Murkowski said in a 40-minute interview in her Capitol Hill office.
“I broke into a big smile,” Collins recalled. “Such a relief. ‘I have to do what I have to do regardless but it will be so great to have you with me.’ And she said: ‘No, you misunderstood me. I can’t get to yes.’”
The Alaska Republican's’s vote against Kavanaugh — the only GOP dissent — cemented her status as the most unpredictable Republican senator and sparked one of her most high-profile splits with Collins, with whom she has long shared the Senate’s middle lane.
But it was the exclamation point on Murkowski’s work to build a remarkable political brand distinct from others in her caucus that’s only been magnified by the presidency of Donald Trump.
The two share few character traits — where Trump is impulsive, Murkowski deliberates. And she has been among Trump’s toughest GOP critics for shutting down the government to get border wall funding. Murkowski also helped scuttle her party’s top legislative priority when she teamed with Collins and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to vote against Obamacare repeal.
But it didn’t take long for Murkowski to learn how to say “no” after being appointed to succeed her father, Frank Murkowski, as one of Alaska’s senator. Shortly into her tenure, she received a phone call from Vice President Dick Cheney.
Cheney was forceful in telling Murkowski that her vote for the PATRIOT Act was important to President George W. Bush but that he wanted to hear her concerns. After listening to her speak for several minutes about why she wasn’t on board, Cheney paused her and asked: “Oh, this is really about the policy for you, isn’t it?”
“I was like: ‘Yes sir, of course it’s about the policy.’ And he says: ‘If it’s about the policy there's probably nothing I can do to sway you on that, so thank you for taking my call,’” Murkowski recalled.
Sitting for an interview in her office, which was once occupied by Alaska legend Ted Stevens, Murkowski was relaxed and candid as she panned the possibility of another shutdown, defended earmarks as crucial for her state and questioned the need for her party to change the Senate rules to cut debate time on nominees.
And she had some advice for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other party leaders, saying the GOP should develop more of a legislative agenda rather than focus on filling judicial vacancies.
“It’s unfortunate that we’re kind of viewing [nominees] as: this is the one thing we can do,” she said. “We’re not focusing on [legislation] as much as I think we should or we could.”
The Alaskan senator is somewhat less of a pivotal vote this year after Republicans padded their majority in November, yet securing her support is among the most difficult tasks her party leaders face daily — and at a time when any division with Trump gets amplified.
“When I would try to whip Sen. Murkowski, it wasn’t a matter of persuasion. It was a matter of getting information,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who for six years had the unenviable task of twisting Murkowski’s arm as party whip.
“I would say she’s the most independent," of all senators, he said.
“Man, I like working with her,” said Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the top Democrat on the Energy Committee, which Murkowski chairs.
Just as Manchin distances himself from national Democrats by doing things like voting for Kavanaugh, Murkowski seems to need her party less than anyone. Though she has yet to crack 50 percent in her three general election wins, she won by 15 points in 2016. In 2010, after she was defeated in the GOP primary, she triumphed in a write-in campaign.
That makes her less beholden to Trump than most GOP senators despite her state’s conservative lean.
Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)
“I’m not on his speed dial like some of my colleagues are. And that’s OK. That’s fine,” she said, deeming their relationship “very respectful, one towards the other, and we’re clearly in sync on so many of the energy issues that we’re advancing.”
Their cooperation on energy was punctuated by their success in opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling as part of the GOP’s 2017 tax law.
But Murkowski isn’t ready to endorse Trump for reelection.
“You know that’s a question that I probably shouldn’t answer. Because we don’t even know if the president’s going to run,” she said, despite his aggressive fundraising and politicking.
Trump fumed publicly to a Washington Post reporter after her Kavanaugh vote, vowing that she would face repercussions though she isn’t up for reelection until 2022. And some Republicans mused after the failed Obamacare repeal vote that perhaps McCain, Collins and Murkowski should lose their chairmanships, according to two Republicans with direct knowledge of the GOP conference’s conversations.
But the party’s ire with Murkowski has faded, one Republican senator said, even as she jabbed Republicans for going along with Trump’s failed shutdown strategy.
“It’s water under the bridge,” the senator said of the Kavanaugh vote.
Part of that reconciliation stems from Murkowski’s personality. While comfortable voting against the president’s agenda when she finds it necessary, she doesn’t enjoy being his loudest critic like her former colleagues Bob Corker and Jeff Flake did. She doesn't generally go on the Sunday shows or national TV either.
And she doesn’t seem to take much notice of chatter from the president or anyone else when she votes against her party.
“As long as you can stand behind your decision, it shouldn’t cause me to lose sleep that I didn’t go the way the president wanted me to go. Or that the next-door neighbor wanted me to go. I have to do the best job I can in terms of my own deliberation,” she said.
That’s why it seemed so easy for Murkowski to break with her party and support a Democratic measure to reopen the government in late January; she was one of just six Republicans to do so. Murkowski had been stewing about the shutdown for a month, speaking in increasingly dire terms about how it was affecting recession-laden Alaska and her many constituents who depend on the federal government.
And as the next shutdown deadline awaits on Feb. 15, Murkowski has tough talk for her party, suggesting some of her colleagues didn’t take seriously the effects of the 35-day debacle on real people. Murkowski said she did countless Skype meetings with her constituents during the shutdown and lingered at Dulles International Airport before a flight home to talk with unpaid TSA workers. She even stopped flying home during weekends because she thought it came off as tasteless.
“It just didn’t get to that point of urgency,” she said. “Maybe if you don’t put yourself in the place where you’re hearing that stress from people, then it just isn’t there. So you’ve got to put yourself in that place.”
And on the issue of avoiding a shutdown at all costs, Collins and Murkowski are once again aligned. But how many other Republicans are willing to the buck the president alongside her is another question.
Republicans are “in unison, you know: ‘not a good plan to be in a shutdown,’” she said. “But they were willing to go along with a strategy that could have prolonged it even longer. And so if the president were to take us in a different direction? I don’t know."
By: Burgess Everett