It wasn’t long after the federal government shut down last month that Sen. Lisa Murkowski began seeing the real impacts of Congress’ inability to pass a deal before the October deadline.
After all, she walks to work every day in Washington, D.C., so she spoke with security guards daily who’s expenses hadn’t stopped when their paychecks did, and she lives next door to a couple who both work for the federal government and were facing the same challenges.
Every night when she came home, Murkowski said the couple would check to see if the senator was smiling — to see if, maybe, there was an end in sight.
“We were all losing — the country was losing,” Murkowski, R-Alaska, said during an interview at the Empire’s office on Wednesday. “This was very personal from where I was sitting.”
So when her legislative director told her to tune in to the senate floor because Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, was onto something, she did so immediately.
“She basically said enough, let’s stop the blame game and start working on solutions,” Murkowski said.
Right away she texted her colleague from the other side of the country to figure out how to make the plan work.
After a brief conversation, she signed on, and the little-publicized resolution that helped end the shutdown was picking up steam.
But to get anywhere, they had to get Democrats on board.
“We knew if this was yet one more Republican proposal, it wasn’t going anywhere,” Murkowski said.
So New Hampshire senators Republican Kelly Ayotte and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen joined the effort and the early backers of the resolution talked about how to make it all come together while eating cold pizza in one of their offices.
Eventually, that conversation led to having six Democrats and six Republicans voicing support over the measure.
“By that point in time, the word was out that there was a very solid plan that was under consideration,” Murkowski said.
But the group ran into opposition when both sides approached their respective party leaderships.
“They said, ‘Nice idea, but don’t worry, we got this under control. Cool down a little bit and let us work our magic,’” Murkowski said. “Next day, everything was cratered.”
The pattern was repeated three times, she added.
“We would not let leadership fold on this, and they folded a couple of times,” Murkowski said.
The final — and accepted — proposal incorporated about two-thirds of the group’s resolutions, she said.
“I was coming at it from the perspective of there are real families — there are real people out here who are really hurting, who are really afraid,” Murkowski recalled.
Ultimately, it was a situation that could have been — and should have been — avoided, the senator said.
“To think that an effort to defund Obamacare with a Democrat-led Senate, with a president in office who this is his signature domestic legislation ... It was not a strategy that could win,” Murkowski said.
It eventually left Congress in a cul-de-sac of sorts where the only option was to backtrack, and, in the process, hurt American families, she added.
“We’re 4,000 miles away from D.C., we think, ‘Ah, not a problem,’” Murkowski said, adding, “We’re all tied into this.”
While visiting Juneau, Murkowski spent much of her time Wednesday talking with Alaskans who had been impacted by the shutdown. She started with workers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute, and continued to visit with workers with the U.S. Forest Service and others at the downtown federal building.
When lunchtime hit she did what many federal employees in Juneau do — she went to Seong’s Sushi and Chinese across the street from the federal building. The senator had mentioned the impact the shutdown was having on Seong’s on the Senate floor in D.C. after reading a story published in the Empire.
“It was great because our senator was concerned about the local business,” said Seong Kim, the restaurant’s owner.
The potential impact had the shutdown dragged on much longer — particularly for Alaskans depending on the one-month king crab season for up to a third of their annual income — has the 11-year Senate veteran thinking about legislative ways to ensure it never happens again.
“Is there a way we can say, ‘That’s not an option on the table,’” Murkowski said, “because I don’t think that was a responsible way to proceed.”
When she gets back to the nation’s capital next week, exploring that possibility is going to be one of her priorities, she said.
“I have listened very carefully to the impact this shutdown has had on the people I work for,” Murkowski said. “The ripple effect of this has enormous consequences.”