Alaska losing clout in Congress

Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2001

Alaska U.S. Sens. Frank Murkowski and Ted Stevens will lose powerful committee chairmanships if Vermont Republican Sen. James Jeffords becomes an independent. National policies that matter to Alaskans also could change with new Senate leadership, political observers say.

But Alaska's long-serving senators would retain influence and a switch in Senate leadership wouldn't change the federal government's actions on all of the issues important to Alaskans.

That's partly because Democrats and Republicans still have to work together in a closely split Senate, where Murkowski and Stevens likely would remain the ranking minority members on committees they now chair.

And some issues, such as the roadless policy for national forests, probably will be decided in federal courts. Other issues, such as gas and oil leases in national petroleum reserves in Alaska, are decided by the Bush administration.

Still, if Murkowski stopped being chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Stevens no longer led the powerful Appropriations Committee, it would have a big impact on Alaska, political observers said.

"The first thing you'd see is a roadblock or logjam in when things are heard," said Dave Dittman, president of the Anchorage-based Dittman Research Company of Alaska. "The substance would be as the actual legislation is developed in committee. That would change as the staff changes over time."

Equally important would be the change in the Senate leadership at the top and in other committees. It could affect military base closures or where strategic defense satellites are placed, Dittman said.

"Clearly it's going to have a major effect on the national policy agenda and the president's ability to set that agenda and to get his programs enacted into law," said John Katz, who directs state and federal relations for Gov. Tony Knowles from Washington, D.C.

Jeffords' switch, if it happens, would come at a time when major energy bills are being considered. The Democrats' bill doesn't include opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration, as Murkowski's measure does. But the Democratic bill does include incentives for a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope.

A change in energy committee leadership wouldn't determine the ANWR issue, Katz said, but committee support and floor leadership under a Republican majority could be helpful in opening the refuge to oil exploration.

Murkowski's office declined to comment on the possible change in Senate leadership. Stevens spokeswoman Melanie Alvord said Jeffords' decision wouldn't affect Stevens' position as the No. 2-ranking Republican in seniority.

"The senator has had no trouble getting things done for Alaska when we were previously in the minority," she said.

If Democrats control the Senate, Stevens will be the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, which passes along major bills that fund the federal government and steers federal money to states. Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, with whom Stevens has worked for decades, would become chairman.

"They work as a team," Alvord said, noting Byrd has successfully championed projects for West Virginia while he's been in the minority.

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