Interior chief warns Alaska senators on health care
Washington — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Alaska’s two Republican senators to warn them of repercussions for the nation’s largest state if they failed to toe the Trump administration line on health care, according to a published report.
The Alaska Dispatch News reported Thursday that Zinke called Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and complained that Murkowski’s vote against proceeding on legislation to repeal “Obamacare” had put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy. Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie to advance the measure earlier this week.
Sullivan told the newspaper that the call from Zinke heralded a “troubling message.” Questioned by reporters on Thursday, Sullivan declined to discuss his conversations with administration officials.
Murkowski confirmed that she received a call from Zinke, but said she did not perceive the call as a threat against her or Alaska.
“He was just sharing the concern that the president expressed to him to pass on to me,” Murkowski said Thursday. She and Zinke, a former Montana congressman, have a “cordial, respectful and friendly relationship,” Murkowski added. “I don’t think that will change one bit.”
The Interior Department and the White House had no comment on the report.
The notion of a Cabinet official warning senators of retribution over health care is highly unusual, even as Trump has lashed out at GOP members of Congress for balking at his policies. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted at Murkowski: “Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”
Murkowski, who was re-elected to a new six-year term last year, chairs the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has say over Interior business and nominations. She also leads an Appropriations subcommittee with authority over the Interior Department budget. On Thursday, an energy committee hearing on nominations was postponed, with a spokeswoman citing “scheduling uncertainties.”
Alaska has a range of issues affected by the federal government, including proposals to build a road through a remote wildlife refuge and drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Several Alaskans also have been nominated for key posts at Interior, and Murkowski and Sullivan have pushed to expand drilling on federal land in Alaska’s North Slope near the Arctic Ocean.
Sullivan told the newspaper: “I’m not going to go into the details, but I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop.”
“I tried to push back on behalf of all Alaskans. We’re facing some difficult times and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the policies that Secretary Zinke and the president have been talking about with regard to our economy. But the message was pretty clear,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan told reporters on Thursday that resource development is critical for his state, which he said is in recession.
“From my perspective, the sooner we can get back to cooperation between the administration and the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the better,” he said, referring to Murkowski.
Murkowski, who talked to Trump before her vote on Tuesday, said she has no problem with the administration’s efforts to persuade her on the health care bill.
“The president wants to get a health care bill. He’s going to make calls. That’s understood. … That’s kind of his job. I don’t have a hardship with that. I don’t have heartburn with that at all,” she said, adding that she made her position clear to Trump when they talked before the initial vote on Tuesday.
“He was very direct, in terms of encouraging me to vote to proceed,” Murkowski said of Trump. “It was a difficult conversation.”
In the end, she decided to vote against moving forward, saying the bill was not ready and would make unacceptable cuts to Medicaid.
Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said any threat against Murkowski was a mistake.
“Always. Tomorrow’s another day,” Shelby said. “We vote thousands of times … I’d never threaten anybody because they didn’t vote with me on some issue because tomorrow, we might have another issue.”