WASHINGTON -- Sen. Mark Begich can marshal some impressive evidence to bolster his claim that he is a centrist more in line with fellow Alaskans than with many of his Senate Democratic colleagues.
Since joining the Senate in January 2009 to replace the late Sen. Ted Stevens, Begich has consistently taken votes and pushed bills to protect oil and natural gas companies, such as preserving their tax subsidies or opposing more federal regulation of them.
That stance helps an industry vital to Alaskans while placing him at odds with all but a handful of other Senate Democrats.
Begich's support for Big Oil led the League of Conservative Voters to give him a score of 64 percent on important environmental votes last year, a lower grade than most other Democratic senators.
Begich has also consistently opposed the episodic attempts by President Barack Obama and allied congressional Democrats to toughen federal gun controls, again adopting a lonely position within his party's caucus.
And the former Anchorage mayor, more selectively, has cast himself against real or claimed big-government budgets, as he did recently by joining just seven other Democratic senators in voting against the spending plan of Sen. Patti Murray, a Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget Committee.
Two days before that vote, Begich filed three amendments that he said would cut federal spending by $400 million.
"I have not been shy about my frustration at the lack of progress on spending cuts in Congress," Begich said. "Today is just the beginning of a series of cuts I plan to put forward."
But Begich's Senate boss, Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Murray didn't allow his measures to come to a vote in the Democratic-controlled body, even though they permitted votes on 46 other amendments by 33 senators from both parties.
And Begich has backed Obama, Reid and other Democratic leaders over the last three years by voting for some high-profile temporary and longer-term budget deals that Republicans say raised taxes, increased federal spending and hiked the deficit.
In its legislative scorecard for key Senate votes last year, the anti-spending Club for Growth, an influential Washington advocacy group, gave Begich a grade of 8 percent.
That grade placed him at No. 85 in the Senate -- more fiscally conservative than 15 Democratic senators and less so than 35.
Among the votes deemed as big-government votes by the Club for Growth, Begich voted for a farm bill; for nationwide transportation projects, low student loan rates and flood insurance subsidies; for raising taxes on wealthy Americans; for funding Obama's health-insurance law; and for providing disaster relief without offsetting spending cuts.
The only time Begich voted how the group liked, among 25 votes, was his vote to allow development of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Teas.
Other vote analyses produce different results.
Among all 484 roll call Senate votes in the 112th Congress -- covering 2011 and 2012 -- Begich voted differently than a majority of other Democratic senators 8 percent of the time.
Only nine Democratic senators broke party ranks more often than Begich, while 41 followed the party line more often.
A National Journal analysis of 116 key votes last year -- 46 percent of all votes taken -- ranked Begich as less liberal than 39 other Democratic senators and more liberal than 11.
The perspective changes, however, when the lens zooms in to focus on the most important votes.
In a Washington Post analysis of the 34 votes it deems the most significant taken since Begich took office 50-plus months ago, he breached party lines twice, breaking ranks March 12, 2012, to vote for two similar failed amendments that would have advanced the Keystone pipeline.
Among the high-profile votes in which Begich joined most other Democrats were backing the 2009 economic-stimulus bill, the 2010 health-care overhaul, and the failed 2010 DREAM Act's protections for the children of illegal immigrants; and opposing a 2011 House Republican budget bill to cut $61 billion in spending over six months and a failed 2012 measure allowing employers and insurers to refuse birth-control coverage.
For Alaskans, Begich has spent much of his time in Washington away from the Senate floor glare of controversial votes, focused on more local and regional issues of vital importance to his state.
Begich crafted an accord that enables Indian Health Service clinics to treat non-Native veterans, and he helped members of the National Guard or National Reserve gain access to seats on military planes, a perk previously limited to active-duty soldiers.
Begich is working with Republicans to expedite the export of liquefied natural gas to NATO and to Japan, Alaska's largest trading partner.
Crossing party lines to work with Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the state's senior senator, Begich preserved surcharge-free mail delivery to Bush Alaska and blocked a plan to relocate the F-16 squadron at Eielson Air Force Base.
The two senators have also teamed up to push legislation requiring all oil tankers in the Prince William Sound to be escorted by two tugs.
As part of the 2009 stimulus package, Begich helped secure $197 million to modernize Alaska's military bases and $152 million to build a hospital in Nome.
And the senator has proposed the creation of a U.S. ambassador to the Arctic and an Arctic Advisory Council to help coordinate policies of the United States, Canada and the other seven countries in the region.
By JAMES ROSEN
Anchorage Daily News