Zinke call has Sullivan ‘very concerned’ after Tuesday vote

  • Sen. Lisa Murkowski smiles as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, R-Mont. reaches out to shake hands before a Jan. 17 confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which Murkowski chairs. (Photo/J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

(Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a Thursday morning statement from Sen. Murkowski.)

There may be something more in store for Alaska than a critical tweet from President Donald Trump to the state’s senior senator.

On Wednesday morning the president scolded Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Twitter for her Tuesday vote against opening debate in the Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act, writing that she “really let Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

The “Too bad!” portion of the social media post might turn into “too bad for Alaska.”

According to Sen. Dan Sullivan’s spokesman Mike Anderson, Sullivan took a phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Wednesday.

“As a result of that call, he’s very concerned about Alaska’s economy,” Anderson said in a statement to the Journal.

Anderson did not elaborate and what exactly worries Sullivan is unclear at this point.

A spokeswoman for Murkowski did not immediately respond to requests for comment late Wednesday, but offered a statement from the senator Thursday morning.

"I pledged early on that I would work with the president to help advance Alaska's interests. I will continue to do that — to help build and strenghten our economy, keep the promises made to us as a state, and ensure access to health care," Murkowski said in the statement from her office. "While I have disagreed with the Senate process so far, the president and I agree that the status quo with health care in our country is not acceptable and that reforms must be made. I continue working to find the best path forward for what I believe will achieve that — a committee process where we can work issues in the open and ensure Alaskans have the health care choices they want, the affordability they need, and the quality of care they deserve."

Zinke made a several-day trip to Alaska in late May, touring North Slope oil infrastructure and participating in Memorial Day ceremonies in the state.

He also signed a secretarial order at the Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s annual conference in Anchorage May 31 directing Interior Department agencies to update oil and gas resource assessments for the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska.

The resource assessments are seen as precursors to potential action by the Trump administration to allow more oil and gas activity in the North Slope federal holdings.

Opening the ANWR coastal plain to exploration drilling would require an act of Congress.

Zinke said repeatedly during his trip to the state that Alaska must play a lead role in the administration’s quest for “American energy dominance.”

As the lead manager of federal lands across the country, Zinke is ostensibly Alaska's primary landlord. The federal government holds 222 million acres in Alaska; about 60 percent of the state, meaning his decisions could have a major impact on how Alaska's primary resource extraction industries fare.

Murkowski told NBC Nightly News Wednesday that she doesn’t think it’s prudent to worry about “a statement or a response that causes you to be fearful of your electoral prospects. We’re here to govern. We’re here to legislate.

“We’re here to represent the people who sent us here. So every day shouldn’t be about campaigning. Every day shouldn’t be about winning elections. How about doing a little bit of governing around here? That’s what I’m here for.”

On Wednesday, Murkowski, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, postponed a Thursday morning committee meeting at which six of the president’s mid-level Energy and Interior department appointees were to be considered. A committee release announcing the change did not offer a reason for the postponement and said a new time for the hearing hadn’t yet been determined.

Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins were the only Republicans to vote against opening debate on the Senate floor to repeal and possible replace the Affordable Care Act with a Republican bill.

Their “no” votes left the Senate in a 50-50 tie after Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had to fly across the country to vote “yes” following surgery to remove a brain tumor and being diagnosed with cancer 10 days ago.

Then Vice President Mike Pence had to vote to break the tie open up to 20 hours of floor debate over the coming days.

She explained the rationale behind her vote in a Tuesday afternoon statement from her office, emphasizing again that major policy items like health care reform should be put through the rigors of the standard committee process, “where stakeholders can weigh in and ideas can be vetted in a bipartisan forum,” Murkowski said. “I voted ‘no’ today to give the Senate another chance to take this to the committee process.”

Alaska has the highest health care costs in the country and Murkowski has long stood with her fellow Republicans in railing against the Affordable Care Act and voted to repeal “Obamacare” in prior years when a presidential veto was assured.

With an unusually small individual insurance market, premiums in Alaska’s individual market have skyrocketed well beyond even what other states have seen. At $927 per month, the average monthly health insurance premium in Alaska’s individual market is also the most expensive in the country.

That is despite a $55 million subsidy from the State of Alaska in 2016 to Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield, the lone insurer left in the state’s individual market, to keep premiums from increasing further. The funding through the Alaska Reinsurance Program passed in 2016 held rates down to a 7 percent increase rather than a projected 42 percent.

Earlier this month the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services approved an application by Gov. Bill Walker’s administration to get the feds to cover the lion’s share of the reinsurance program for the next five years using savings from smaller premium subsidies amounting to $332 million.

However, Murkowski has also opposed the current versions of Republican health insurance reform — crafted in closed offices — that would cut Medicaid funding and are projected leave more residents in her state uninsured.

Also on Wednesday, Murkowski and Sullivan signed onto a letter with 34 other senators in support of the Interior Department’s new Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program for 2019-2024, which could open large areas of federal waters off Alaska closed to industry activity under President Barack Obama.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
07/27/2017 - 12:13pm

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