Sen. Lisa Murkowski: The Other Woman From Alaska

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Energy Leader: Sen. Murkowski Alex Wong / Getty Images

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is a different kind of Alaskan politician, the kind who doesn’t make headlines. The unglamorous Murkowski is no friend of Sarah Palin. In 2006, Palin unseated Murkowski’s father, Frank, from the Alaska governorship, then sided with Murkowski’s little-known Tea Party opponent in this year’s GOP primary, while labeling the senator “part of the big-government problem in Washington.” But Murkowski has the power to get something done on the one issue Alaskans really care about: oil. (Last year, Alaska pumped almost 250 million barrels from the ground and nearby sea, which meant a $1,300 dividend for every state resident.) While Palin may have inspired the chant of “Drill, baby, drill!” it’s the obscure Murkowski who stands the best chance of getting the drilling going again after the BP spill.

A White House aide says top officials have been wooing Murkowski, who is the Obama administration’s hope—maybe its only hope—of getting a climate-and-energy bill through Congress this year. Well, make that an energy bill. Any legislation is going to be more about extracting and encouraging new energy sources than protecting the environment. That might seem counter-intuitive given that the Gulf of Mexico is suffering one of the biggest environmental disasters ever—brought about by the overzealous pursuit of oil. But after the BP disaster, President Obama wants to show that he is doing something, other than imposing a six-month moratorium on deep offshore drilling. With the threat of another economic downturn, there are a plenty of legislators who want to create jobs in the energy industry, and cheaper and more plentiful energy sources.

For a time, back in the rosy beginnings of the Obama administration and the Democrat--controlled Congress, it looked like meaningful environmental legislation would pass handily. A year ago, the House voted for a cap-and-trade bill that would have cut back on greenhouse gases. But it stalled in the Senate, where Democrats from coal-producing states balked at the cost. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut were hopeful they could work out some kind of compromise that would attract Republicans, but their chief ally, GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, backed away.

Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, is not exactly green. She opposes cap-and-trade and has pushed a bill that would stop the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. But she does acknowledge global warming, and she might back a bill that encourages growth in sustainable energy, as long as there is support for expanded oil and gas drilling as well. (Murkowski has taken $440,000 in donations from Big Oil since 2002, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.) “I want to be able to see through some legislative package that’s going to address our energy problems and what’s going on in the gulf right now,” Murkowski told NEWSWEEK. “This is an issue that really needs to be bipartisan.”

gal-tease-worst-enviro-disa A timeline of the disastrous BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. View the photo gallery.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has agreed to use a bill that Murkowski drafted with Senate Energy Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman as a framework for the final bill. The proposal would target energy efficiency and aim to cut carbon simply by amping up renewables. Murkowski’s idea “is what will likely come out of this,” says Lieberman. “It’s not the best that we can do, but it would be a significant step forward.”

Murkowski’s stance on drilling is complicated. During a speech to a group of fishermen last month in Cordova, Alas-ka, the incredulous audience asked Murkowski why she was the only senator to oppose a bill that would have raised BP’s liability into oblivion. Setting legal responsibility too high, she told them, would squeeze smaller drilling companies from the market. Mindful of the lingering effects of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez spill, the audience wasn’t swayed. In other instances, she has sought to move her state beyond oil. “I often tell people that it’s not in our interest to think only about drilling,” she says. “We need to think bigger, and look elsewhere.”

Environmentalists don’t think Murkowski’s vote is worth the tradeoff of expanded drilling. “That’s a pretty high price for green folks to stomach,” says Paul Bledsoe, an analyst with the National Commission on Energy Policy, an arm of the Bipartisan Policy Center. The broader green community has widely vilified Murkowski. Leading groups are also not pleased with Obama for what they see as the beginnings of unforgivable capitulation. But Obama, who claims not to read polls, is forging ahead. Wary of an even tougher legislative climate after the fall elections, a White House official, speaking on the usual condition of anonymity, admits the president is willing to go out “on a serious limb” to get something done this year.

That urgency is another symptom of the moment. Legislation to regulate climate and energy could reasonably wait until next year. But both parties agree that the third component of the bill—what to do about BP and how to regulate future drilling—needs to get done now. So Obama and top Democrats have made clear that Murkowski needs to be kept on board, at almost any cost. At the end of June, during a meeting with Obama and key Senate leaders at the White House, Murkowski detailed her concerns about any provision to limit carbon emissions. Kerry, who has tried desperately for a strict carbon--cutting measure for over a year, sat back in his chair and stared at her intently, according to two sources in the room. When the meeting was over, he walked with Lieberman to the group of waiting reporters outside the West Wing. “We believe we have compromised significantly,” Kerry said. Then he paused. “And we’re prepared to compromise further.”

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