Open warfare erupted Thursday between Sen. Lisa Murkowski and the Trump administration after the Alaska Republican voted this week against GOP efforts to repeal Obamacare — a stance that’s led to White House vows of revenge.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Wednesday called both Ms. Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, to warn that long-awaited Alaska projects — such as the potentially life-saving King Cove road and oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — could be scrapped as a result of Ms. Murkowski’s health care vote.
Ms. Murkowski fired back Thursday by delaying confirmation votes for several top Interior nominees in her Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, though committee officials denied that the move was direct retaliation against Mr. Zinke, attributing the delay to “uncertainty with the Senate schedule.”
The intraparty clash comes at a crucial time in the health care debate and for the state of Alaska, which stood to benefit from economic growth and job creation in the energy sector being encouraged by the new administration. In comments to the Alaska Dispatch News late Wednesday, Mr. Sullivan said his call with Mr. Zinke was “troubling” and that there was little doubt that the White House was serious in its threats.
“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,” Mr. Sullivan told the outlet. “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.”
The Interior Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday.
As for specific retaliatory measures, the nominations of Alaskans to prominent positions inside the administration could stop. Also, the King Cove road — which would connect the isolated community of King Cove to a nearby all-weather airport, potentially saving lives in the process — could be in jeopardy. The Interior Department must sign off on the project, which was advanced in the House last week in a bipartisan vote.
Ms. Murkowski has been a leading voice in favor of the project for years, and before this week’s health care vote, the administration had been outspoken in its support of moving forward with the road.
The Trump administration also had backed opening up areas of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, which could be a financial boon for Alaska. Mr. Trump even called for such energy exploration in his budget blueprint.
It appears that project, too, is now in question.
In a statement Thursday, Ms. Murkowski said she remains committed to working with the administration in spite of the health care dust-up. She also defended her vote against the GOP plan to repeal Obamacare.
“I pledged early on that I would work with the President to help advance Alaska’s interests. I will continue to do that — to help build and strengthen our economy, keep the promises made to us as a state, and ensure access to healthcare,” the senator said. “While I have disagreed with the Senate process so far, the president and I agree that the status quo with healthcare in our country is not acceptable and that reforms must be made. I continue working to find the best path for what I believe will achieve that — 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.”
Democrats, meanwhile, pounced on the growing feud and charged that the administration, through Mr. Zinke, is engaging in “political blackmail” over the health care bill.
“Running a department of the federal government means you serve the American people as a protector of their rights and freedoms,” Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat and ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “It doesn’t mean you serve the president as a bag man for his political vendettas. Threatening to punish your rivals as political blackmail is something we’d see from the Kremlin. 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.”