The relatively new members of the Alaska and Hawaii Senate delegations are working to build up their relationships as they seek to continue a decades-long alliance forged by the late Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Ted Stevens.
"We don't have that strength yet," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said. "But you've got to put it into context. ... The Hawaii delegation is a very young delegation; actually the Alaska delegation is also a very new delegation, so we need to form those same bonds."
At age 57, Murkowski is the dean of the two Senate delegations, having served in the chamber since 2002 — time that overlapped with Inouye, Stevens and Sen. Daniel K. Akaka of Hawaii, who all had enormous effect on their states and the chamber.
Inouye, Akaka and Stevens served about 112 years collectively in the Senate; the current members of those two states' Senate delegations have served about 16 years collectively.
Inouye and Stevens, both distinguished World War II veterans, struck up a bond representing their then-young states in the 1960s and formed a powerful alliance, particularly on the Appropriations Committee, where they specialized in directing and protecting federal aid for each other's states via earmarks.
The Frontier State's members are all Republicans, while Hawaii's delegation is all Democratic. But Murkowski insists they can work together.
“We’ve got so many issues in common,” the Alaska Republican said. “Being the only two states that are not part of the continental United States … it seems like we always need to have exemptions, or waivers, or a little bit of dispensation because we’re different."
Murkowski's planning a dinner to improve the ties between the two Pacific states. They're often in sync, with high energy prices, a dependence on air travel and significant native populations.
But disagreements over energy policy could threaten the bonding efforts.
Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii isn't particularly happy that Republicans kicked off the year with Murkowski, the Energy and Natural Resources chairwoman, pushing the Keystone XL pipeline through the chamber as the first order of business.
“The way this Congress has started is with issues where there is not a lot of room for bipartisan compromise,” said Schatz, who does not support the pipeline.
He and the state's junior Democratic senator, Mazie K. Hirono, voted against the pipeline bill, which passed the Senate 62-36. Hirono took over Akaka’s seat in 2013, after he retired.
Climate change is a big issue for both island state lawmakers. Schatz's amendment to the Keystone bill stating "climate change is real" and "human activity significantly contributes to climate change" failed on a 50-49 vote last month (60 votes were required). Alaska's senators voted "nay."
In March, Schatz helped spearhead an all-night Senate climate change talkfest starring 30 Democrats. But he stressed he has a good relationship with Murkowski and is getting to know her fellow Republican, Sen. Dan Sullivan, who defeated Democratic Sen. Mark Begich last year.
“Once the committees get started and some of our issues get fleshed out I think we are going to have a really solid working relationship,” he said.
One potential area of agreement is on natural gas, considered less damaging to the environment than other fossil fuels.
Murkowski said she wants to pipe abundant natural gas from Alaska's North Slope to the state's population centers, as well as ship it to Asian markets.
She also wants to sell to Hawaii, which she noted is “right on the way” to Asia. Schatz expects his state will be a customer, preferring “to get it from the United States than anywhere else."
Murkowski noted the failure to build Keystone makes her worried there will be resistance to building a gas pipeline too.
But the general agreement on natural gas doesn't necessarily extend to oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The recent White House push to designate it as wilderness in an attempt to protect it from oil and gas exploration prompted Murkowski to call it “a frontal attack" on her state.
Alaskan lawmakers have long pushed to open ANWR to oil and gas drilling and in 2005, Stevens launched a gambit to add language to a must-pass defense-spending bill. Both Inouye and Akaka voted with Stevens, though his effort fell a few votes short of overcoming a filibuster.
“Akaka and Inouye voted yesterday to appease their old political ally, Sen. Ted Stevens,” read a Honolulu Advertiser op-ed at the time. “Fair enough. But another view to consider is Hawaii's well-established respect for nature and the environment.”
Asked if he could imagine doing that, Schatz said while he has a “friendly relationship” with Murkowski and Sullivan, “I am not sure this is going to extend all the way to ANWR.”
Sullivan chuckled when told Inouye had voted with Stevens on ANWR, but then noted the close friendship between the two and how they referred to each other as brothers.
He noted he has had “really good meetings” with his Hawaii colleagues, and even called them after Christmas when vacationing in the Aloha State with his family.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’m in your beautiful state, I look forward to working with you when I get back,’” Sullivan said. “I got nice responses back when I was out there.”
Hirono, who served in the House, already has ties with Murkowski and Alaska's at-large Republican Rep. Don Young. Murkowski and Hirono sat together at the State of the Union, and Young endorsed her in her 2012 campaign. Hirono stressed that the tradition of the delegations working together will continue.
“While the current members are relatively new to serving together, I look forward to strengthening our relationships and continuing to work towards solutions on issues that affect our states," she said.
Murkowski said the dinner she is planning would likely be in March. She also invited the House members — Young, and Hawaii's two Democratic representatives, Mark Takai and Tulsi Gabbard.
“The Hawaiians are going to bring their Hawaiian luau [fare], and we are going to do potlatch with local [cuisine],” Murkowski said, referring to a ceremonial feast celebrated by native peoples in the Northwest.
Schatz said he’s looking forward to the get-together: “It’s going to happen.”
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