Learning the Senate ropes

In her early days in office, Murkowski pushes through major pipeline measure without debate

Posted: Monday, February 17, 2003

No manual can tell Lisa Murkowski what she needs to know. There's no helpful handbook that begins, "So, you've been appointed to high political office."

"There is so much that is done here in the Senate that is just based on tradition," she said. "It's based on 'This is the way it has always been, and we do it this way because this is the Senate.' "

Murkowski, appointed by her governor father, has been on the job as Alaska's junior U.S. senator for about six weeks. She acknowledges she's still finding her way, still establishing her office.

"You want to know what I've learned?" she asked. "Don't count on anything."

Her days are not her own. Just when she settles on a plan, she said, she is called to vote on the Senate floor, or a constituent arrives from Alaska planning to speak to her.

Murkowski said she feels she should wear a sign that says "Sorry I'm late," because she begins each encounter with that apology.

But her Senate life is taking shape. She's on the Energy and Natural Resources, Environment and Public Works, Veterans Affairs and Indian Affairs committees. She hired a chief of staff, Justin Stiefel, the former No. 3 aide from Sen. Ted Stevens' office.

And one of her first legislative measures, an amendment to block environmental lawsuits over the recently reissued permits for the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, made it through Congress.

To the dismay of environmentalists, it passed in the Senate without debate as part of the giant federal spending package.

Describing the measure to Alaska reporters, Murkowski displayed the kind of temperance that made her known as a moderate during her four years in the state House. She told reporters she didn't understand who would be served by a lawsuit over a pipeline that is already up and running.

"The environmentalists' concern, obviously, is the Alaskan environment, but I don't think any one of them is suggesting that what we need to do is dismantle the pipeline," she said.

This approach, barring a court review, should be used cautiously, said Murkowski, who noted that she's an attorney herself.

"As a general rule, I don't think it's wise to restrict your access through the legal channel," she said.

Murkowski also lobbied for passage of a Sen. Ted Stevens amendment ending legal challenges to the Tongass Land Management Plan, which passed last week as part of the budget act. And her first bill, cosponsored with Stevens, proposed expanding the authority of the federally funded Denali Commission to pay for road projects in rural Alaska.

In some ways, Murkowski has stepped into the life her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, lived as a U.S. senator. She is staying in his Capitol Hill house, she inherited his office space and she is hiring some of his staff. But she is not her father.

In addition to charges of nepotism, Murkowski's appointment brought complaints from some Alaska Republicans that she isn't the conservative her father is.

In part, that comes from the position she took on abortion in the state Legislature. How she handles the lightning-rod issue will undoubtedly come up when she campaigns to keep her job in 2004, a test that begins with a closed Republican primary, which often favors conservatives.

In the state House last May, she said she was "going to stand up for the women of Alaska" as she voted against a bill to limit state-funded abortions for poor women.

As a senator, she seems to be trying to walk the elusive middle ground.

"I think at this point in time, neither side claims me," she said recently.

In opposing the bill in the House, Murkowski cited technical grounds - it was poorly drafted, testimony was inconsistent, a court would overturn it - than philosophical or moral.

One complication in her Senate life is her travel schedule. She spends most weekends in Alaska, where her husband and sons remain.

"It's very difficult," she said of the long plane ride. "But I found it's a great opportunity to get my homework done."

The weekends at home are her chance to be with her husband and kids and meet the people she represents.

"I didn't get this job the usual way. I did not campaign across the state, so there's a lot of people who don't know me - they know of me - and I think it's important they know who their senator is," she said.

Soon, she said, the trips home will be an opportunity to campaign.

Another challenge is her selection as chairwoman of a subcommittee on water and power.

"It's more work, but I didn't come back here to go to the receptions," she said.

The subcommittee is especially important to the dry Western states. It's also an opportunity to consider Alaska's hydroelectric needs. But she said she's not sure of the Susitna dam project, which Alaska Rep. Don Young said he plans to revive in hopes of attracting new industries with abundant, cheap power.

Murkowski recalled that in the 1980s the state considered damming the Susitna but abandoned the plan because of the cost, then put at $5 billion or more. She said the costs could only have gone up.

"Certainly the opportunity to provide power is there, but do we need that much?" she asked. "It's something that I think is fair to look at and say is the time right in Alaska, but I'm not making any commitments to it at this point in time."

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