After health vote drama, Zinke and Murkowski meet over Alaska ales

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a week out from controversy over calls he made to Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan about Murkowski's health care votes, got together with Murkowski over a couple of Alaska beers Wednesday night.

Zinke tweeted about the meeting, saying he invited Murkowski to dinner and she suggested drinks. "My friends know me well," he wrote.

Zinke drew national attention last week when Alaska Dispatch News reported that he called the senators at the request of President Donald Trump to deliver some harsh words — and potential retribution — over Murkowski's vote against proceeding with floor debate on the GOP's health care bills.

Murkowski said she was not bothered by the call and has a close relationship with Zinke, who visited Alaska after joining the Trump administration this spring. The senior Alaska senator chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the Interior Department, and also the appropriations subcommittee that handles the department's budget.

Murkowski said she opted for a meeting over beers because she can't resist an opportunity "to highlight our Alaskan beer." In the picture Zinke posted online, the pair appear to be holding up bottles of Alaskan Brewing Co.'s Big Mountain Pale Ale, which she said she brought along.

Murkowski said she "would characterize the conversation as very wide-ranging, not only about things within Interior and Alaska priorities, but just much of what has been going on around the Hill."

As to whether she specifically meant last week's nationally reported drama, Murkowski said she doesn't "like to take the private conversations that I have and outline them in the media."

Nevertheless, Murkowski said, they discussed Alaska, energy, public lands, monument designations, wild horses and the Interior budget.

Last week, Murkowski said it was a coincidence that she postponed an Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing set for the next morning, where a vote was expected on administration nominees for the Interior Department. (She said there was a "hiccup" with one of the nominees, and the committee spokeswoman told reporters that it was a Senate scheduling issue.)

On Thursday, Murkowski held a short-notice vote just off the Senate floor — rather than in an official committee meeting — to advance those same nominees to a floor vote.

Again, it was an issue of timing, she said afterward.

In an interview, Murkowski said she hoped the five nominees passed out of committee on a voice vote Thursday could be incorporated in a "unanimous consent" vote that afternoon. The Senate quickly shuttled stalled nominations through passage Thursday in a quest to head into August recess a week earlier than expected.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.