Two weeks ago on a Saturday early in the government shutdown, Sen. Lisa Murkowski was watching the public affairs cable network C-SPAN as her Republican colleague from Maine, Susan Collins, told an empty chamber that she was tired of the accusations over who was at fault -- then proposed a way out.
"She outlined a pretty simple plan," Murkowski told reporters in Anchorage on Friday as she detailed her take on the shutdown. "I saw that and immediately contacted Susan and said, 'I'm in. What do we do?'"
Talking to reporters on the campus of Alaska Pacific University before a speech at a women's summit there, Murkowski called the shutdown unfortunate and unnecessary. She said it was pushed on Congress by outside groups and the tea party, which she called "a very fringe element of the Republican Party."
Murkowski was the first to support her strategy for a deal, Collins said in an email Friday.
Collins, Murkowski and a third woman Republican senator, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, then started a bipartisan group lauded by others as a framework for negotiations, though its proposal didn't become the deal that ended the shutdown.
"Senate Women Lead in Effort to Find Accord," a headline in The New York Times said. "Women Are the Only Adults Left in Washington," was the more pointed headline in Time magazine's Web edition.
Sen. Mark Begich, a Democrat, said when the Republican women stepped up, it was the first indication to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that his caucus wasn't sticking together as a united front.
"It changed the debate. They definitely get some credit for that, there's no question about it," Begich said.
Democrats had already agreed to a budget $70 billion below what they wanted, and were looking for Republicans to follow through on a plan to keep government running.
"We needed some Republicans to loosen up over there," Begich said. "We knew there were some rational people over there who didn't want to keep the economy crashing, keep the government shut down."
No Republicans budged until Collins, Begich said. "Then a couple more, then boom."
In an email, Collins said Murkowski knew a bipartisan coalition would be key.
"I first went to the Senate floor on Saturday, October 5th, with a plan to end the government shutdown and avoid default," Collins said. "Senator Lisa Murkowski was the very first colleague to call me to offer her help and support."
The plan crafted by the 14-senator coalition -- half Republican, half Democrat -- was better than what finally passed, Murkowski said. Among other elements, the coalition plan gave federal agencies flexibility when making the automatic spending cuts known as "the sequester," Murkowski said. It also did away with a tax on medical equipment and came up with a different way to restore that lost revenue to the Affordable Care Act.
McConnell, the minority leader, told the coalition to "step back" and see what the House came up with.
But "the House just wasn't able to pull it together," Murkowski said.
"I will tell you there were some outside influences that did not help this process whatsoever, some outside groups that are pretty focused on a very fringe element of the Republican Party that said you step out of line, we are going to primary you," Murkowski said. "Now I'm not quite sure when being primaried became a verb but somehow or other it has become this enormous threat out there."
It's familiar if uncomfortable ground. In the 2010 Republican primary, Murkowski was targeted and lost to tea party favorite Joe Miller. She had a historic victory in the general election as a write-in candidate.
She said Heritage Action, the political arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, pushed for the shutdown as a way to take away money from the Affordable Care Act, and that some people cowed under the pressure. She said the group was led "a guy who wants to be president," a reference to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
But they "didn't have a winning strategy," she said.
Was the tea party weakened in the shutdown crisis?
"I don't think Ted Cruz thinks so," Murkowski said.
House Speaker John Boehner has a hard job "trying to keep all the frogs in the wheelbarrow," she said, echoing a term that Boehner has used himself.
A number of House members identify with the tea party, a smaller portion in the Senate. Murkowski said that while she disagrees with the tea party approach, she has constituents "coming from that perspective so yeah, I do think you have to listen to them." Their concerns about spending and the national debt deserve attention, she said.
Begich said the shutdown was surreal at times. He furloughed most of his staff and his office was dark and empty when he got to work some days. About 13,000 Alaskans were furloughed at the peak, a number that dropped to 8,000 after civilians who work for the military were called back to work.
"That's just bad," he said. The shutdown is "the most disappointing situation" he's experienced in nearly five years as senator.
"Can you imagine when I was mayor or when I was on the Anchorage Assembly what would have happened if I had done that?" Begich said. "We would have been drummed out of office in 24 hours probably."
The bipartisan Senate group kept trying different approaches and "kicked this deal over the edge to make something happen," Murkowski said.
The final deal provides money for government until Jan. 15 and raises the amount the government can borrow until Feb. 7. It also makes one change to President Obama's signature health care bill by requiring the government to confirm the incomes of people who qualify for insurance subsidies.
The budget crisis still needs a real fix.
"This puts the onus on us," Murkowski said. "This forces us in a good way to get our act together."
Congress needs to get back to governing, she said.
"We have been focused on just winning. Just winning. Republicans want to win the majority so that we've got the gavel. Democrats want to fight to keep the gavel. It's about winning the majority and in the meantime who's minding the store? Who's governing? Who's legislating?"
She suggested the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, on which she's the ranking Republican, provides one example. The committee chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, agreed to work with her and other Republicans, Murkowski said.
More than half of the legislation that made it to the Senate floor this year came from that single committee, she said.
Reach Lisa Demer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER