Lisa Murkowski Is Poised and Ready to Raise Hell at Interior

The senator has a bone to pick with the Interior Department and she may soon have two gavels to batter it with.

National Journal hosts "Countdown to Coppenhagen" on November 4, 2009 with NJ's political director Ron Brownstein interviewing Senator John Kerry D-MA and Senator Lisa Murkowski. (National Journal)

Two facts should keep Interior Secretary Sally Jewell awake at night.

First, if Republicans win the Senate, Alaska's Sen. Lisa Murkowski will wield tremendous leverage over Jewell's department. She would lead both the Energy and Natural Resources Committee that oversees the department and the Appropriations subcommittee that controls its budget.

Second, Murkowski is utterly furious with the Interior Department these days.

When the pair met privately Tuesday, Murkowski reminded Jewell of the storm on the horizon. "I told her there is a likelihood that she would be dealing with me in a different position and perhaps a couple different positions," Murkowski said in an interview.

At the heart of Murkowski's fury is a proposed road through federal land that the senator argues is a matter of life and death for a village of rural Alaskans.

In December, after years of study, Interior rejected a long-proposed road that would go through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in southern Alaska, finding that the project could be devastating for wildlife.

Alaska politicians have for decades now argued that a road is needed to help residents of the remote, largely Aleut village of King Cove get access to emergency medical care. A roughly 20-mile road would give the roughly 1,000-person village access to an all-weather airport in Cold Bay, which they could use for flights to a hospital in Anchorage some 600 miles away.

It's a signature topic for Murkowski, who is battling Interior's decision to scuttle a project advocates call a matter of life and death for getting people out in emergencies.

According to Murkowski's office, 19 people have died in plane crashes trying to get people out of King Cove, where harsh weather can make air access treacherous, or because they could not get timely medical care.

The battle is a microcosm of long-standing tension between residents of Alaska, a rugged place with a strong libertarian streak, and the federal government that owns more than half the land in the vast state.

Murkowski is already using her ranking-member perch to push Interior to reverse its decision. But given the power of twin gavels next session, she would have much more power to try and use spending bills to require approval of the road — and to batter Interior if she doesn't get that and other policy concessions.

"I am not looking for a pound of flesh from Sally Jewell. I want her to figure out how she is going to get us this road and I want to work with her to make that happen," Murkowski told National Journal.

But Murkowski is fully aware of the leverage she'll gain if Republicans regain Senate control and she takes the gavel of the Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee.

"I think that that is something that tends to get the attention of those that have to answer to the Appropriations Committee when they come in for their budget, so you can have some meaningful conversations," she said. "It gives you more tools in your toolbox if you are sitting there with the gavel in your hand."

Those oversight powers that come along with the gavel would give Murkowski the ability to make life more difficult for Interior, a sprawling agency that Murkowski could subject to examination that rivals the most uncomfortable doctor's office visits.

And her fury over the road isn't going away any time soon: "The notion from your department that you must protect Alaska from Alaska natives, our first people, it's insulting, and that's the way that Alaskans feel," Murkowski said at an Appropriations subcommittee hearing Wednesday on Interior's budget. She said Interior is saying, in effect, that Alaskans "cannot care for the land and the animals and the birds and still provide for a safe, reliable access."

The dispute hasn't gone unnoticed by other lawmakers.

"I think Secretary Jewell is one of the president's more able appointments, and Senator Murkowski is a very respected senator, and I don't think it's good for the Senate or the country for the two of them to not be able to work together for the next three years because Senator Murkowski might very well be chairman of both the Energy Committee and the Appropriations subcommittee," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican.

"Our system of checks and balances means that sometimes the views of a United States senator have to prevail," Alexander said.

Jewell absorbed a broadside from Murkowski on Wednesday when she appeared before the Appropriations subcommittee.

The Alaska senator wore a scarf emblazoned with images of the Incredible Hulk — a homage to the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who marched into Senate floor battles wearing Hulk ties — and launched into a lengthy attack on Jewell's decision.

"I will not stand by and watch as more Alaskan lives are put at risk, put at risk potentially to die. I will not let this issue die," Murkowski said.

Jewell, for her part, is in no mood to escalate the battle.

"Senator Murkowski is very passionate about the citizens of the state of Alaska and I appreciate her passion along with that of [Alaska Democratic] Senator Begich, and that shows through in her words," Jewell told reporters afterward.

But she's also standing behind the Izembek decision, which rejected a land swap that would have brought more acreage into the refuge but allowed the road to proceed. Interior's formal "record of decision" in December finds that the road and the activities it would bring would lead to "significant degradation of irreplaceable ecological resources."

Beds of eelgrass in the refuge feed over 98 percent of the world's Pacific black brant before the birds make the nonstop flight to Mexico for the winter, the document notes, adding the birds are "particularly sensitive" to disturbance.

More broadly, the refuge provides habitat for tundra swans, emperor geese, Steller's eiders, bears, caribou, and other animals.

"The Izembek National Wildlife Refuge is a narrow isthmus between two lagoons and it is a critical nesting ground for a number of species, some threatened or endangered and others not. It is also a very narrow migratory route," Jewell said Wednesday.

"It is a very, very important and unique habitat and the determination by the Fish and Wildlife Service is that a road would be very disruptive through that area," she told reporters.

The December decision document notes that $37.5 million was provided in a late 1990s spending bill that improved transportation access and medical services in the area.

Going forward, Interior says it's committed to working with the community in the region and the state to find alternatives, such as improved marine options and more use of Coast Guard helicopters in emergencies.

But Murkowski batted that aside Wednesday, calling all other alternatives too costly or risky or both, and said her talks with top Coast Guard officials show that option is a nonstarter, requiring two $26 million helicopters and 20 additional personnel.

"I will do everything, everything in my power for as long as I am here to enable the people of King Cove to receive proper emergency access that the rest of us take for granted," Murkowski said at the hearing.

"I will not," she said, "get over this issue."

That means Interior is in for a rough ride if Republicans pick up the six seats needed to win the Senate majority.

"It means that Jewell had better find a way to kiss and make up," said Stephen Brown, a lobbyist for Tesoro. "And I don't think flowers or candy will suffice."