Senate Republicans' U-Turn on Murkowski's Energy Committee Spot

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In a surprise move, Senate Republicans today decided to let recent party pariah Lisa Murkowski keep her ranking position on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. The reigning sense was that Murkowski would be booted for North Carolina's Richard Burr, the next in line on the committee seniority-wise, in recompense for her write-in challenge to the party's Senate nominee in Alaska.

The Hill's headline as of this morning didn't even hedge the issue, declaring, "Murkowski punished over defiance; Burr to get top energy slot." In conversations I had with representatives of environmentalist and renewable energy groups this morning, the assumption was that Burr would be the new ranking member.

Yet in today's Republican caucus meeting today, CNN's Dana Bash and Ted Barrett report, Republican senators decided to not even broach the issue:

A GOP source in the room tells CNN, despite anger towards Murkowski, the conference decided not to even take up the question of the Senate Energy Committee post because "there was a sense that she's resigned her leadership post, she lost her primary, she will probably lose her race, and she'll be gone. She will not be ranking [Republican] because she will not be here."

Murkowski has already been severely chastised by the GOP, with Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pressuring her to step down from her post as vice-chair of the Senate Republican Conference before announcing her write-in bid. Murkowski complied, and her colleagues voted today to replace her on the conference with Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso.

Since breaking with McConnell and the rest of her party on Friday, Murkowski has been the target of much vitriol from conservative figures -- despite her pledge that she will continue to caucus with Republicans if she wins.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed this morning, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour fumed that "there is no excuse for [Murkowski's write-in] campaign, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was right to demand her resignation from the GOP leadership. ... It is an obligation of party leaders and candidates who participate in our primaries to accept their outcomes."

Sen. Jim DeMint was less controlled in a fundraising email he sent out this weekend, calling Murkowski a "big-tent hypocrite" and her decision to run as a write-in a "betrayal" of the GOP.

Whether or not Murkowski wins in November, says Robert Dillon, a spokesman for Republicans on the Energy Committee, she will likely retain her ranking spot until January -- "that would be the natural order." After Senate Republicans reorganize, new committee members would select a ranking member.

In a succinct reaction to the conference's decision -- stunned into terseness, perhaps? -- Murkowski's office relayed the following statement from the senator: "I look forward to continuing to serve as the Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee."

As for her plans for the committee through November, Dillon says that Murkowski "remains committed to improving the nation's energy security" and ensuring regulatory clarity for oil companies operating in Alaska. But realistically, he says, "we only have about three weeks left on the debate. It's unlikely that a lot can get done." Murkowski has said that she plans to stay in Alaska through the November election, focusing on her campaign.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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