Trump feud with Alaska senator intensifies
The White House is escalating its public feud with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a key swing vote who helped defeat the “skinny” ObamaCare repeal plan early Friday morning.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) on Wednesday and threatened to withhold federal support for key economic development projects in the state if Murkowski didn’t line up to support the GOP’s healthcare plans.
The missive — a threat Sullivan called “troubling” in the Alaska Dispatch News — came hours after Trump publicly called out Murkowski on Twitter, saying she “really let the Republicans, and our country, down” when she voted against a measure to proceed to the healthcare bill.
Murkowski on Thursday dismissed the characterization that Zinke’s call amounted to a threat.
“What the secretary shared with me was that the president was not pleased,” she said. “I think it’s very clear based on my conversation with the secretary that he was just sharing the concern that the president had expressed to him to pass on to me.”
Murkowski said Trump called her before Zinke’s conversation, and neither talk swayed her.
“He was very direct, in terms of encouraging me to vote to proceed,” she said. “It was a difficult conversation.”
An Interior Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The same day as the talks with Zinke and Trump, Murkowski, in her role as chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, canceled a committee vote on six Interior and Energy Department nominees slated for Thursday. But she said that decision was because of a “hiccup” in the nomination process, not retaliation for the vote.
In a late-night vote, Murkowski joined GOP Sens. Susan Collins (Maine) and John McCain (Ariz.) in voting against the latest Republican healthcare overhaul plan, effectively killing it.
Murkowski has repeatedly taken a moderate posture on healthcare reform, saying in a statement that a Senate repeal package needs to go through a “committee process where we can work issues in the open and ensure Alaskans have the healthcare choices they want, the affordability they need and the quality of care they deserve.”
Her opposition has put her at odds with the White House, which is desperately looking to deliver on Trump’s campaign promise to repeal ObamaCare.
The president hasn’t been afraid to squeeze members of his party who are wary of the Senate’s repeal strategy.
Trump openly mocked Nevada Sen. Dean Heller (R) at a White House lunch earlier this month, asking if Heller would like to “remain a senator,” and positing that, “any senator who votes against debate says you are fine with ObamaCare.”
Heller voted to begin debate on ObamaCare earlier this week.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Thursday that she couldn’t “speak about conversations between Cabinet members and other individuals that I wasn’t a part of and haven’t had a chance to speak to either individual about.”
But Murkowski has dismissed Trump’s broadsides against her, saying that she is more focused on the healthcare process than political threats.
“The president and I do not disagree on the need for health care reform,” she said. “The status quo with health care in our country is not acceptable.”
There’s no love lost between the president and Murkowski, who was tepid about Trump’s candidacy last year and said she wouldn’t vote for him after the Access Hollywood tape came out in October.
Murkowski easily won reelection last year and isn’t up again until 2022. Her seniority in the Senate gives her a powerful perch from which to respond to threats from the Trump administration: she is the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees Interior, and she chairs the Appropriations panel that writes the department’s budget.
Murkowski’s independent streak is also a product of her remarkable reelection victory in 2010, when she won as a write-in candidate after losing the GOP primary. Senate Republicans backed the GOP candidate, Joe Miller.
A lobbyist with close ties to Alaska was doubtful that the feud would further escalate on either side, noting the high stakes for both Murkowski and Trump. Alaska plays an outsized role in the nation’s oil supply, and Murkowski’s role as the chief congressional overseer and appropriator for Interior should scare Trump and Zinke.
“Zinke may have been asked to make the call to remind Sen. Murkowski about how administration support’s going to be for her agenda. But she has as many levers, if not more, on their agenda,” the lobbyist said.
“To spite Alaska over this, all Trump would be doing is spiting his own agenda in regards to more U.S. energy, mining and the like.”
Reports of Zinke’s call drew backlash from Democrats and conservation groups on Thursday.
Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said he would call for an investigation into the reported threats against Alaska.
“Threatening to punish your rivals as political blackmail is something we’d see from the Kremlin,” he said in a statement.
“Secretary Zinke’s willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior’s policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest.”
The Center for Western Priorities said the incident turned Zinke into “Trump’s hit man.”
“He’s now threatening to hold public lands and energy policy hostage over a health care bill,” Jennifer Rokala, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
“This is the U.S. government, not the Corleone family. Congress and the administration should discuss America’s energy and lands policy on the merits, without mob-inspired threats from the Department of the Interior and the White House.”
—Jordan Fabian contributed.