Sen. Lisa Murkowski said that while congressmen look for offsets to pay for Gulf Coast relief and reconstruction, she and others will be caught in the middle of the battle.
"This is a very, very difficult time for us in Washington," she said, while speaking to a Juneau-Gastineau Rotary Club breakfast at the Prospector Hotel on Thursday.
Murkowski gave the club an overview of the buzz in the nation's capital concerning money available for construction projects and the potential of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve for oil drilling.
"Everything we had scheduled was literally thrown up in the air," Murkowski said, due to hurricane damage consuming most talks.
To safeguard from passing the debt to future leaders, Congress wants to pay it now by taking money from mandatory spending, Murkowski said, noting that any discretionary money is all gone.
Capitol Hill is spending about $70 billion for the relief effort and experts say reconstruction could exceed $200 billion.
When asked if she supports surrendering federal dollars for two planned bridges earmarked for Alaska with federal funding totaling about $450 million, Murkowski said she is against backtracking on a transportation bill recently passed that contains money for projects across the nation over the next several years.
The senator said she sees the transportation bill unraveling like a sweater if one thread is pulled.
"If one Alaska project is taken out, what happens after that is (people will say), 'If you're going to take my bridge, well we're going to take your bridge over here, and we're going to take your garage over there," she said.
If money is taken from the transportation projects bill, then the dollars can only be used to pay for roads or bridges in the Gulf Coast region, not for structures such as a courthouse.
"It's not an entirely legitimate way out," Murkowski of using highway taxes for an array of reconstruction needs.
Senate aide Kristin Pugh said she could not speculate whether the reconstruction effort will deplete money that some Alaskans want set aside for a planned highway from Juneau to a ferry terminal near Skagway.
To find sources of revenue for the costly reconstruction, Murkowski said people "need to think outside of the box."
Money may have to come from cutting programs. A recently passed energy bill includes money to educate people about energy, and Murkowski said some lawmakers may argue that the program is not needed.
Senators are also talking about delaying for one year a prescription drug benefit program that will be offered to seniors for the first time through Medicare.
Many ideas are floating out there, but they may not have any weight until they are collected by committee chairmen and the Bush administration starts backing them, Murkowski said.
Next week, an energy committee will review language in a budget reconciliation bill that includes permission to drill in ANWR. Then a finance committee will collect all versions of the language and form a final statement that will be in the bill.
Debate on the budget bill could start early to mid-November.
"If we are successful in getting a budget reconciliation through, then we will get ANWR," she said.
The unknown is whether Congress will get a budget reconciliation, which does not happen every year, Murkowski said. Sometimes the federal government continues funding programs with levels set by the previous budget passed.
Drilling in the wildlife refuge is not the only controversial item in the budget bill, Murkowski said. Proposals for reductions in Medicaid spending and provisions relating to student loans and farm subsidies are bothersome to other Americans.
"ANWR is certainly an issue that people get very emotional about and it's causing headlines. But in terms of the issue that could cause reconciliation to not advance, my assessment is that it will be the Medicaid issue," she said.
Andrew Petty can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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