WASHINGTON — Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan pressed Cabinet nominees to consider Alaska's uniqueness, the difficulties of rural areas and the nation's largest fisheries at a spate of confirmation hearings this week.
Senators can publicly question President-elect Donald Trump's Cabinet selections when they sit on the committee holding a confirmation hearing. For Murkowski, that means the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which held the first of two confirmation hearings for Health and Human Services nominee Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., on Wednesday, and a hearing for Education nominee Betsy DeVos on Tuesday night.
For Sullivan, that meant a hearing for Commerce secretary nominee Wilbur Ross, and the Environmental Protection Agency administrator-to-be, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.
Several of those nominees faced controversy and opposition from Democrats. Hallways were packed with supporters and protesters Wednesday in a Senate office building where three hearings were happening simultaneously.
Murkowski pressed her nominees on how they would adjust some their conservative stances to meet her needs for rural and Native populations in Alaska. Sullivan focused on the state's fishing industry. Both urged peeling back regulations they said are onerous and often a barrier to economic growth or healthy public services.
Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price
Murkowski told Price that over the weekend, she sat down with Alaskans involved in the state's health industry. In Anchorage, the senator met with the head of the state's Division of Insurance; the commissioner of Health and Social Services; a representative from Premera, the only insurer left on Alaska's individual market; doctors, representatives from tribal health organizations and a few people from small rural hospitals.
"Obviously we got different views and opinions about where we go with this replacement of the (Affordable Care Act) and what that would need to look like," Murkowski said. Nevertheless, the state has issues: some of the highest costs for health care and insurance in the nation.
But Murkowski said she'd heard clearly concerns about undermining the state's Medicaid expansion that has added 20,000 people to its coverage, and about removing Native-focused ACA provisions.
She told Price she wanted to make sure those who "gained access through Medicaid expansion" can have "coverage options … in this new era of health care reform."
Price was short on details in his response, but said whatever happens to health care, he agreed the government "must ensure that individuals (newly on Medicaid) don't fall through the cracks in whatever transition occurs."
That could include some other kind of coverage option, Price said. But "we are committed and adamant that coverage be able to be continued. So we will work with you to make sure that happens."
Murkowski also pressed Price to roll back regulations she said are stifling rural health centers.
EPA nominee Scott Pruitt
The line was longest to get into the hearing for EPA nominee Pruitt, filled with environmental protesters and supportive coal miners. Sullivan was clear whose side he was on.
"I have enormous respect for Attorney General Pruitt, who spent hours answering tough questions with ease and intelligence," he said after a hearing where he expressed a desire to see his confirmation move quickly.
"I believe EPA needs a serious course correction," Sullivan told Pruitt during the hearing Wednesday. "There's a lot of anger, even fear of this agency," he said, urging Pruitt to "regain the trust of the American people."
The two spoke about putting more control into the hands of states, and discussed the environmental interests of industry officials.
Sullivan also asked for Pruitt's help with a longtime ongoing issue for the fishing industry — vessel discharge permits — which he said is a clear example of EPA overreach.
The government "requires a discharge permit to literally hose off the deck of a ship," Sullivan said, noting that it means requiring a permit to put fish parts back in the ocean. But EPA only developed the "general" permit after a federal court ruled a law passed by Congress required it.
"This is the kind of thing where the trust between Americans and the EPA has eroded so much because of these kinds of issues," Sullivan said.
"If confirmed will you work with me and others to make sure that these kinds of regulations are are balanced" with the needs of industry? Sullivan asked.
Pruitt said the discharge regulations demonstrated a "lack of priority" at the agency. He pledged to focus on "areas that will really improve tangibly the environmental protections for our people across the country."
Commerce nominee Wilbur Ross
Sullivan heaped praises on Ross during his nomination hearing Wednesday, noting his work investing in the faltering U.S. steel industry.
The senator questioned Ross on his self-proclaimed favorite topic: slow growth of the nation's gross domestic product during the Obama administration.
"President Obama's going to be the first president never to hit 3 percent GDP growth ever in a year," Sullivan said, asking if Ross agrees lower GDP growth is "the new normal … or can we get back to traditional levels of American growth, and if so how do we do that?"
"I think we can," Ross said. And if the economy doesn't grow faster, Ross wouldn't keep his position long "because the president-elect won't put up with it," he said.
Ross urged reduction of inhibiting regulations, boosting energy production, increasing exports and investing in infrastructure.
Sullivan also urged Ross to focus on keeping "fisheries well-managed" through the Commerce Department.
Ross noted in return he was mindful of a private conversation he had with Sullivan "about king crabs coming in from Russia as part of our trade problem, and I assure you that too will be something I'll look into if confirmed."
Sullivan pressed Ross on whether he would allow tariffs, which the senator said "would seem to me to be about as anti-growth as possible."
Ross was not definitive in his answer, but said he would encourage clear guidelines for renegotiating trade deals.
"In terms of the 35 percent and some of the other statements, I think the president(-elect) has done a wonderful job preconditioning the other countries with whom will be negotiating that change is coming," Ross said. "The peso didn't go down 35 percent on accident. Even the Canadian dollar has gotten somewhat weaker — also not an accident. So I think he has done some of the work already that we need to do in order to get better trade deals."
He did not agree with Sullivan that tariffs are inherently anti-economic growth, but said boosting exports is the most important issue for economic growth.
Punishing bad actors "is essential, because there are inappropriate and illegal trade practices being performed and if you don't really punish them, you're never going to modify their behavior. So, there's certainly a role for it there," Ross said.
Education nominee Betsy DeVos
Murkowski took a strong arm with controversial Department of Education nominee Betsy DeVos, a longtime education choice advocate and political big spender.
Advocacy groups had urged Murkowski and many other Republicans on the HELP committee to recuse themselves because of donations from DeVos and her family members, who have given an estimated $200 million to political campaigns.
Members of the DeVos family donated $43,200 to Murkowski's re-election in 2015. They provided $23,400 to Sullivan's campaign in 2014.
DeVos advocates school choice — using taxpayer funds to pay for whatever school parents want their children to attend. Many public school advocates see that as a way of pulling money out of the public school system.
Murkowski said she heard from hundreds of teachers in Alaska about DeVos' nomination.
"And I will tell you — they are concerned. They're concerned because they'd love to have the kind of choice that we're talking about. But when you are a small school in Buckland, when you are a small school in King Cove, when there is no way to get to an alternative option for your child, the best parent is left relying on a public school system that they demand to be there for their kids," Alaska's senior senator said.
Murkowski asked DeVos for a "commitment to public education, particularly for our rural students who have no choices" that is "as strong and as robust as the passion that you have dedicated to advancing charter schools."
Teachers in Alaska asked for "true accountability to adhering to federal laws for civil rights as well as students with disabilities," Murkowski said. "But how can you provide assurance to these teachers, these families, these students for whom alternatives and options are severely limited, not because we don't want them, but our geography really isolates us?"
DeVos thanked Murkowski for time spent reviewing a map of Alaska in her office, "because it does remind us how these unique challenges that Alaska has (sic). I would just say I can assure you that if confirmed, I will support Alaska in its approach to educating its youngsters …"
"So I need to have a very clear and a very firm commitment that the focus that you will give not only to Alaska but to states that have significant rural populations, that these students who will not have alternatives, that their public school system is not undermined, eroded or ignored," Murkowski said.
"Absolutely, senator. You have my commitment," DeVos responded.