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Don’t ask, don’t fold

Jill Burke

1214-lisa-pride-v2U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski finds herself in a peculiar situation. Alaska's senior senator could potentially lose her status, built over eight years in Congressional politics, if on Jan. 3, 2011, there has been no outcome in Alaska's still-contested Senate race, currently unwinding in state and federal courts. In the meantime and until Jan. 3, Murkowski is in the unique position of being one of only a handful of GOP senators considered a swing vote on several pieces of legislation that are currently in the queue.

Murkowski could be instrumental in deciding whether bills under consideration in the lame-duck Congress will even make it to the Senate floor for a vote, and if they do, whether they will pass.

Just six weeks after she was re-elected by a write-in campaign, Alaskans who voted to keep Murkowski in office are paying attention to what she'll do on a couple of things, in particular whether she'll support a repeal of the military's discriminatory policy against gays, and the fate of the 9/11 Health Care bill.

These and other issues had been on ice, per dictum of the Republican caucus, which had banned Senate floor votes until a compromise had been reached on former President George W. Bush's tax cuts and the Democrats' desire to get a fair share of taxes from the rich while extending unemployment benefits before Christmas to the long-term unemployed, whose numbers remain above 10 million.

Murkowski had agreed to hold the line with the Republican caucus on refusing to pass anything until the tax bill was out of the way. Last week, at the very same time a superior court judge in Juneau was mulling over whether to give credence to a lawsuit challenging her Senate-race vote count, Murkowski's office gave notice that she officially opposed "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and that she intended to follow the advisement of current and former Pentagon brass, along with the rank-and-file, in opposing continuance of the ban against gays in the military.

But the very next day, Murkowski allowed political tactics by the Republican minority to upstage an opportunity to actually lead her party. She refused to support closing debate on the defense reauthorization bill, to which the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" referendum had been riding, leaving Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as the lone Republican senator to take a stand on the issue.

Despite the Senate's failure to repeal DADT, the issue isn't going away.

House Democrats revived it earlier this week as a stand-alone bill, which is scheduled for a House vote Wednesday morning.

What will Murkowski do once DADT is brought to the floor of the Senate?

Her staff says Murkowski supports the policy's repeal and is willing to vote for it, but only if two things happen first. Murkowski won't entertain an "Aye" vote unless her colleagues extend the Bush-era tax cuts and pass the government spending bill. Realistically, that pushes any potential movement on repealing the gay military ban into Christmas week.

Alaskans who believe DADT is bad policy say it's time for Murkowski to take a decisive stand.

"She has the chance to do the right thing now - and there is absolutely no excuse for failing to act," said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, in an e-mail.

Discrimination of gays has already cost the military $200 million to replace discharged service members who were perfectly able to perform their jobs, Mittman said, adding that the 800 discharged service members had "mission critical" skills, including 59 Arabic linguists.

"Service members who are lesbian or gay -- and are willingly risking their lives in our armed forces -- deserve nothing less than the integrity that comes from being able to serve their nation with honesty," Mittman said.

Many Alaskans who shed their political tendencies and crossed party lines to support Murkowski's write-in campaign are looking at her maneuvering regarding DADT as a signal of her sincerity in garnering the votes of Alaskans.

"She had to do a lot of listening," said Jackie Buckley, a longtime political activist and spokesperson for a coalition called Equality Works, which sought in 2009 to end housing and employment discrimination against gays and transgendered people in Anchorage.

Many Alaskans personally reached out to Murkowski to explain the hardships DADT causes on people who want to serve but cannot or those who are discharged -- and the impact the loss of a career and employment has had on their family, Buckley said.

"I think she understands the personal nature of this much more now than she did before she realized this was a bad policy," she said.

And, Buckley is hopeful the hard-fought campaign has broadened Murkowski's sense of duty.

"I feel like she has very much been a party-line person until recently, and she recently realized it's not about party - it's about people," Buckley said. "I suspect that she will be more accessible as a result of that and will listen to more Alaskans."

Also in Murkowski's sights -- and the sights of Alaskans who supported her -- is the issue of health care for the men and women impacted by the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The 9/11 Health and Compensation Act provides medical care for the tens of thousands of people who were exposed to toxins in the aftermath of the attacks. Alaska firefighters who fought to help Murkowski keep her seat believe there is both a moral and practical incentive to make sure the 9/11 rescuers are cared for, but from afar, the bureaucratic process of deal-making is hard to take in.

As with DADT, Murkowski, through her office, has said she is supportive of the 9/11 health care bill, but only if the tax bill and the government spending bill are passed first. But Murkowski has additional concerns about the 9/11 bill that may sink her support for it should it come to a vote. She's on board with the intent but she isn't satisfied with the legislation's current incarnation.

"We are frustrated with the process back in D.C.," said Brian Partch of the Alaska Professional Firefighters Association, a group with 300 to 500 members that publicly endorsed Murkowski during the election.

If Alaska ever suffers wide-scale disaster, it will need to rely on help from Outside, he reasoned, adding "we think it's in good faith that the senator recognize these first responders because we are going to need them."

However, Murkowski's support for the bill is, for now, in concept only. Her staff reports that she has concerns about the where the money will come from to pay for it.

"We are definitely disappointed that we haven't gotten any action," Partch said, referring to both the 9/11 health care bill and a separate measure his group is interested in related to collective bargaining for public safety employees.

He doesn't accuse Murkowski of going back on her promise but he hopes the words of Alaska's firefighters will stick with her as she defines what kind of senator she's going to be going forward.

"I would really hope that she would consider her support of public safety as much as we did for her in her election cycle," Partch said.

For Partch and any other Alaskan keeping tabs on what their senior senator is up to in her final days of the current session, the vigil could run right up until Christmas. According to Roll Call, Senate Democrats have told their staff not to make any travel plans next week, a departure from majority leader Harry Reid's original schedule which called for wrapping things up by week's end.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com