Twelve years ago, Sen. Lisa Murkowski sat at the breakfast table with her youngest son, who was in junior high school at the time. It was a big day. The chamber was set to vote on opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling, a priority of Alaska lawmakers for the previous three decades.
“My son looks up at me and he says, ‘Mom, I thought grandpa passed ANWR years ago,”’ the Republican senator recalled recently in her Hart Building office, referencing her father, former Sen. Frank H. Murkowski. “You have to kind of say, ‘Well, yeah, they kinda passed it, but it didn’t really pass. And so it’s back before us again and we’re going at it.’”
That vote ended up failing. But now her son has a graduate degree and Murkowski could very well have another big day again in the next few weeks.
Drilling in the 19-million-acre wildlife refuge has long been a priority for the Last Frontier’s elected officials. It was the proverbial “white whale” for the late GOP Sen. Ted Stevens. Rep. Don Young, the Republican who has served since 1973 as the state’s at-large representative, has shepherded bills out of the House that die elsewhere.
Now, an ANWR drilling measure is attached to the tax overhaul Senate Republicans are considering, with drilling revenues used to raise money to offset tax cuts. But getting it to President Donald Trump’s desk won’t be easy.
And for Murkowski, it may mean voting for a bill that could do damage to a health insurance system she famously helped save earlier this year.
“There will be many parts of this that I think have a lot of warts or that I don’t particularly like,” she said. “Overall, is this going to result in a better tax policy overall for us to help with our economic growth? To help families? That’s what I need to be looking to.”
A generational battle
Included in the budget resolution that allows Republicans to advance the tax measure with only GOP support was a portion instructing the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to find $1 billion in savings. While it did not explicitly say, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle knew exactly what it was for.
“It is significant that ANWR is included; it certainly is one of those factors that make me want to get to yes,” said Murkowski, the Energy panel’s chairwoman.
Originally established as part of an Alaskan public lands bill compromise in 1980, ANWR is home to migrating caribou, denning polar bears and more than 200 different species of migratory birds. It is one of the last big untouched wildernesses on the North American continent.
That law also left open a window for a future Congress to vote to allow oil production activities in the so-called 1002 area, kicking off a decades-long Capitol Hill policy battle as large as the state affected by it.
“This has been a decades-long fight, a generational fight,” Murkowski said. “And so for Alaskans, when you ask them about whether or not we should open up a small portion of the 1002 area, most will say the bigger question is: Why haven’t we, to this point in time?”
Republicans have long sought to launch oil drilling in the area, citing the economic and national security boon of the estimated 10.4 billion barrels of oil and 8.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas contained in the deposit, according to a U.S. Geological Survey analysis.
Those efforts have repeatedly been turned back by most Democrats and a collection of moderate Republicans over the years in the Senate.
Alaska lawmakers have gotten close before. Congress passed a reconciliation measure opening the area 22 years ago that was swiftly vetoed by President Bill Clinton.
And in December 2005, Stevens tried, and failed, to shepherd a defense spending bill with ANWR language through the Republican-controlled Senate to a waiting President George W. Bush, but members of his own party were key to voting it down, 56-44.
“It’s long overdue,” Tennessee GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander said. “It has become an exaggerated environmental debate, and I feel like I’m a strong conservationist. … It’s a big win for Sen. Murkowski. I mean, she has worked hard on it and just to get through the committee as she did and into the tax bill is a significant accomplishment by her.”
For Alaskans, though, the initiative has remained the state’s No. 1 policy goal, regardless of party, since that law went into effect in 1980. Murkowski has introduced some type of ANWR drilling legislation in every Congress she has served in since she took office in 2002.
Support is such a given for Alaskan officials that when Murkowski met with Stevens before she was officially sworn into office, the two did not even need to broach the subject of ANWR.
“It was just known that that was No. 1,” Murkowski said.
The duo led the charge in 2005 when Republicans attempted to move the policy through two separate measures: as part of the reconciliation instructions of the fiscal 2006 budget and then later as part of the fiscal 2006 defense spending bill. Both measures failed as moderate Republicans took issue with the potential environmental impacts.
Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator in the chamber’s history at the time he left office, would consider the defeats as among the biggest disappointments of his 40-plus-year career, according to Karina Waller, the executive director of the Ted Stevens Foundation.
Those defeats, while heartbreaking at times for backers, have helped shape how Murkowski has approached this go-around — her first as chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
“Don’t assume that anyone is going to be with you, because we were disappointed in 2005,” she said. “We thought we had the one extra vote we needed from a Republican colleague, and it wasn’t there. It was very, very disappointing.”
That lesson — that every vote matters — was on full display earlier this summer as Murkowski, along with fellow Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona, scuttled the GOP attempt to repeal the 2010 health care law.
And the lesson will only shine brighter as the Republican tax effort goes under the Senate spotlight.
Enter the tax overhaul
Senate Republicans saw a potentially easy $1.1 billion in savings, the revenue ANWR drilling is estimated to produce over the next 10 years.
But for Murkowski, she knew her goal could become a reality on election night.
“You learn how and when to pick your battles around here. And with President [Barack Obama] in office, it was just not going to be a possibility,” she said. “But when the administration turned, when it was clear that we had majorities, it presents itself as the time, the time to make the effort.”
The Energy panel approved the drilling plan Wednesday, 13-10. One Democrat — Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia — supported it. And the Senate Finance Committee advanced its tax plan Thursday, 14-12. No Democrats voted for it.
A key decision by the Finance panel, however, now places a giant asterisk next to the tax effort.
Health care hiccup
Republicans decided after Tuesday’s weekly policy lunch to include in the tax plan an effective repeal of the health care law’s individual mandate, eliminating the need for the government to spend $338 billion to provide health insurance subsidies.
For GOP lawmakers still hung up on their recent health care defeats, it seemed like a no-brainer. But for Murkowski, it could mean voting for a bill that would undermine a health insurance system she voted to save in July.
Still, she said a repeal of the health care law “means a heck of a lot more than just the individual mandate.”
“We recognize that the individual mandate is one of those underpinnings … but it is not the wholesale repeal of the ACA,” she said, referring to the law by its abbreviation.
Murkowski believes legislation from Alexander and Patty Murray, leaders on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is necessary before the mandate — which supporters of the law say is a critical foundation for the current insurance markets — is repealed.
“I think that there is a path and I think the path is a reasonable path,” she said of her support for the measure. “If the Congress is going to move forward with repeal of the individual mandate, we absolutely must have the Alexander-Murray piece that is passed into law.”
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that repeal of the mandate could lead to 13 million more uninsured individuals over the next 10 years. Republicans argue that those are people simply deciding not to buy insurance. But the CBO also estimated that premiums for others would spike as much as 10 percent because of the mandate repeal.
“Nobody is in a good mood right now. This is tough slogging what they are going through, and getting the votes for significant reform like we are talking about is hard,” she said.
Murkowski could know soon enough if her quest is still alive. The Senate is expected to vote on the tax overhaul the week after Thanksgiving break.