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How New York Times missed the mark on Begich, Obama and the gun vote

Ben Anderson
The New York Times on Monday highlighted Alaska Democratic Sen. Mark Begich's recent "no" vote on expanded background checks as an occasion when President Obama could flex his muscle to punish dissent within the party. But the Times got it wrong. Loren Holmes photo

The New York Times on Monday published an account of how President Barack Obama may have missed an opportunity to show some political willpower following last week's vote that, for the time being, killed the possibility of expanded background checks in hopes of curbing gun violence around the U.S. It was a measure the administration had been pushing hard for. In that vote, U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, voted against the expanded checks, along with a few other Democratic lawmakers up for re-election in red states next year.

The New York Times piece essentially accuses the president of not utilizing a tool in his toolbox to punish Begich's dissent from the party line: denying a visit to Alaska from recently-confirmed Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in order to look at a long-disputed land swap that would see a road built in remote Southwest Alaska. That land swap -- an exchange of 56,000 acres of state and tribal lands for about 200 acres of federal land that would allow for construction of a road between the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay -- would provide a reliable way of getting between the two villages, something residents of King Cove have wanted for years.

"Senator Mark Begich, Democrat of Alaska, asked President Obama’s administration for a little favor last month," the New York Times wrote. "Send your new interior secretary this spring to discuss a long-simmering dispute over construction of a road through a wildlife refuge, Mr. Begich asked in a letter. The administration said yes."

But even after Begich's vote on last week's gun control amendment, the Times notes, Jewell "...is still planning a trip to Alaska -- to let Mr. Begich show his constituents that he is pushing the government to approve the road."

Begich is certainly in favor of the road, and has repeatedly said so. And he did indeed write a letter to Jewell encouraging her to make King Cove her first stop on any trip to Alaska, to listen to the concerns of the community about the often-unreliable link between their homes and the runway at Cold Bay. But what the Times fails to mention is that the biggest hindrance to Jewell's eventual confirmation as the replacement for outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was not Begich, but another senator from Alaska.

Republican Lisa Murkowski sits on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, and had vowed to do everything in her power to block Jewell's confirmation.

That is, until last month, when Salazar announced that the Department of the Interior would revisit the proposed land swap, even after a period of public comment led to a recommendation of no action by a branch of that very same department. On the same day that Salazar made that announcement, Murkowski swung her support toward Jewell's eventual confirmation. And she lived up to her word, too: on April 10, Murkowski cast a "yea" vote for Jewell. Congressman Don Young, also an Alaska Republican, even praised Murkowski by name for her work on getting a second look at the King Cove land exchange.

As Olivier Knox over at Yahoo News points out, "She got what she wanted; the administration got what it wanted."

Where the Times missed the mark was that Murkowski, generally considered a moderate Republican, is perhaps a more fickle Obama ally than Begich. Despite Begich's stance on the gun control issue not going the administration's way, the more surprising swing vote was that of Murkowski herself. She was considered an outside possibility to support the so-called Manchin-Toomey amendment, so named for the two senators who introduced the bipartisan legislation, and who even inserted language hoping to assuage Murkowski's concerns about conducting background checks in remote areas like the Alaska Bush. 

Murkowski also ultimately voted against the expanded background checks, but she was one of only a few Republicans whose names were even floated in the days leading up to the vote.

In the end, it appears that the Obama administration stood to lose a lot more than it would gain by punishing Begich for a vote that had already taken place, making the decision to move ahead with the King Cove road reconsideration a savvy one.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com