WASHINGTON -- As Congress brings to a close its lame-duck session, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski has emerged from her historic write-in campaign as a key swing vote in the Senate on issues backed by the Obama administration.
Murkowski's votes in recent weeks show a more moderate senator, freed from the obligations of a Republican leadership role in the Senate that she held until last summer. She has voted with the Senate's Democratic majority on tax policy, ending the military's ban on gays in the military, a nuclear arms treaty with Russia and even immigration.
Murkowski discounts an Obama administration influence on her voting the past few weeks.
She cites health care and financial regulatory reform as examples of major Obama administration initiatives she considers flawed and still wouldn't support. She is not necessarily "a reliable vote for the president," Murkowski said Tuesday.
If her write-in campaign taught her anything, Murkowski said, it's that what Alaskans are saying is more important than what leaders of either parties want.
"What you have seen since the election are a series of bills that are high-profile, and yes the president has supported them," she said. "But you have to ask the question: Where are Alaskans on these bills? It's always a question of 'What is the next vote?' And where are Alaskans on that next vote?"
When it came to "don't ask, don't tell," for example, Alaskans were overwhelmingly in support of doing away with the policy, Murkowski said.
She said it's the same with the DREAM Act, an immigration bill that would have given students in the United States illegally a chance to become residents. The president had nothing to do with either decision, she said, and when it came to her support of the START nuclear arms treaty with Russia this week, she was more swayed by the military leaders' backing it than Obama's phone call to her.
Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, declined to comment on Murkowski's recent votes. But he noted that the lame-duck session has produced some unusual voting trends. He pointed to the support by Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., of the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal, and the joint move by conservative Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and liberal Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to support a plan to curb the deficit and bring down the national debt. "You're seeing some unusual mixtures of people voting together," Begich said. "People are, 'OK, elections are over.'"
BLASTED ON EARMARK VOTE
The Alaska Democratic Party watched angrily last week as Senate Democrats decided not to bring forward an earmark-laden spending bill after Republicans said they wouldn't support it.
Murkowski said she was disappointed the Senate didn't spend more time considering the so-called omnibus spending bill, which has been replaced with a continuing resolution that doesn't include millions of dollars in earmarked federal money for Alaska programs. Begich went as far as to write to many of the agencies and organizations expecting earmarks, explaining the politics behind the vote.
It was "tantamount to voting for the Republican earmark ban she claims to oppose," the state party's Patti Higgins said in a press release. "It resulted in losing the crucial Alaska earmarks she herself proposed. Alaskans who were hoping that Senator Murkowski would be an independent voice for our state versus a reliable rubber stamp for Lower 48 Republican senators have been given their answer, even before the election has been confirmed."
But many other Alaskans say they sense Murkowski will be receptive to the opinions of the diverse coalition of voters she persuaded this fall to give her another chance.
"She really couldn't have done it without them: Republicans, Democrats, independents, Alaska Natives, gay, straight, black, white," said Elias Rojas of the Alaskans Together For Equality, which backed the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal and praised Murkowski's support of it.
"Her independence from a party is refreshing," he added. "Hopefully the independence becomes the story line."
FIREFIGHTERS ARE WATCHING
Alaska firefighters who supported Murkowski's campaign in Alaska also are eager to see how she'll be voting.
They'd like to see her back legislation that aids first responders who became sick after being exposed to toxins at ground zero on 9/11, and that also ensures those who respond to future emergencies get help. Murkowski has said she's leaning toward supporting the legislation, if it returns for a vote in the final days of the congressional session.
That pleased Brian Partch of the Alaska Professional Firefighters union, who said he and other firefighters have struggled to understand the party politics at play in what they see as basic, pro-public safety legislation.
"She's done a ton of stuff for us in the past," he said. "Once we wade through this mud, that there's going to be a chance that through her past full support of public safety, that we will be able to continue to get public-safety issues supported by her."
WHAT ABOUT NEXT YEAR?
It remains to be seen whether Murkowski's newfound independence means she'll continue to be a go-to vote next year when Democrats in the Senate and the White House are looking for Republican votes.
In January, Republican numbers will swell in the Senate, although they will remain a minority. The slimmer Democratic majority will need the votes of seven GOP senators to reach the 60 votes necessary to block filibuster threats and keep their legislative program moving. Democrats will have to work harder for her vote and that of other GOP senators who've been receptive to voting with them.
Murkowski said she hasn't yet figured out how to use that clout, which she declined to describe as "power."
"I don't think that power is the right word," she said of her new position. "What happens when it's recognized you may be more open to listening to another members' perspective on a bill, they'll come and sit down and talk to you. If you send the signal that 'I don't ever vote for anything that will ever cost any money,' people don't go talk to you. It allows me to have more cooperation and collaboration with other colleagues."
And that means Republican ideas are more likely to be considered, Murkowski said.
"When you have an evening out of the numbers, the minority becomes much more relevant and the discussions have to take place," she said. "That is good for the process. I think that will yield us better policy."