Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday shot back at fellow GOP lawmakers over the Biden-backed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, saying concerns that a small group of Republicans gave the president a win are “petty” when the nation’s infrastructure needs are so significant.
The measure passed the House on Friday, with Alaska Rep. Don Young and a dozen other Republicans providing critical support in favor of it.
In response, several Republican lawmakers and conservative groups swiftly attacked Young and other supporters of the bill, calling them “RINOs” — “Republicans in name only” — and some even saying they should be stripped of their committee assignments.
Alaska’s all-Republican delegation had roles in developing the bill, and they were unique in providing all-in approval for it. The measure passed the Senate in August with the support of 19 Republicans.
Murkowski on Wednesday said the bill was about the nation’s safety and global competitiveness, which has received a C- grade for its infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers.
“So this is not about a win for Biden, or a win for the Democrats,” she said. “This is about meeting our nation’s needs. And for those who, in my view, are going to be so petty that they would deny good, solid policy because they don’t want the person holding the keys to the White House today to be able to say they got that under their watch, what a shame on us that we’re not willing to put the priorities of the country first over the politics of this.”
“And last I checked, when you get out on that road, they don’t check to see if you are a Republican or if you are a Democrat driving on that road,” she said. “When you go over that structurally deficient bridge, they’re not checking to see if you’re a Republican or a Democrat.”
Murkowski, Young and Sen. Dan Sullivan have all said the measure is not perfect. But they add that over the coming years it will provide critical funds to Alaska to improve and builds roads, airports, ports, ferries, broadband and sanitation systems.
Murkowski in particular played a leading role in the bill’s creation this summer when she worked with a bipartisan group of nine other senators to hammer out details.
On Wednesday, meeting with reporters in her Anchorage office, Murkowski called the bill “the most consequential legislation” Congress could have worked on in this moment to grow the national economy and make the U.S. more globally competitive.
She said it’s a win for Alaska because, among other things, it will bring running water and sewer to villages without it, and broadband connectivity to communities lacking telehealth and online educational opportunities. She said it’s a win for the nation because it will do things like alleviate supply bottlenecks like the current inflation-inducing shipping delays.
“You have probably seen some of the articles in the press that highlight Alaska does well and note my involvement,” she said. “Well yeah, what did you expect to me do? Look the other way on Alaska’s needs? Say that rural America shouldn’t get parity here when we’re talking about infrastructure when they’ve always been short-changed? No. By gosh I’m going to get in the middle of it.”
“I’m going to make sure that people understand that when we’re talking about roads, all right roads are good,” she said. “But when 80% of the communities in the state of Alaska are not connected by roads, I’m going to connect the people that I work for. And they connect by water, and they connect by air, and they also need to connect virtually.”
“I think every one of us wants and deserves to have safe infrastructure,” she said. “I think every one of us wants to have an economy that is sound and strong and competitive. And if we don’t make these investments in ourselves, who do we think is going to do it? Are we waiting for the Chinese to come over and build us new bridges? That’s what they are doing in some countries. Well, we’ve got to invest in ourselves.”
“So those people who are suggesting that a Republican can’t support infrastructure, come on, come on,” she said.
Young himself has not directly responded to the attacks that followed his votes. But his office this week said Young is acutely aware that Alaska has significant infrastructure needs the bill will help address, his office said.
“The congressman knows not everyone is as passionate about the bill’s goals as he is, but he doesn’t make decisions based on where the political winds are blowing,” said Zack Brown, Young’s spokesman, in an email.
FreedomWorks, a conservative group that seeks smaller government, was among the groups attacking Young and others they called “RINO Republicans.” The group said in a tweet that Young “sold-out to the radical left’s Big Government agenda.”
Young’s support for the bill shows that he can deliver significant federal investments to Alaska, and continues to wield powerful influence in Washington, D.C., Brown, Young’s spokesman, said.
After Friday’s vote, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said on Twitter that he was grateful for Young’s early advice and encouragement on the bill. Klain called Young one of Biden’s first “consultations” on the bill.
Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican vying for Murkowski’s seat in next year’s election, said on Twitter on Monday that the “so-called’ infrastructure bill “gives Alaska crumbs.”
“It’s the Green New Deal masquerading as infrastructure and just another piece of the Radical Biden agenda,” she said.
But John MacKinnon, who retired in September as head of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, called the bill a “windfall” for Alaska. The agency could see its budget increase by $3.5 billion, or 50%, over the next five years because of the bill.
Sullivan said he and other senators were able to include critical measures in the bill to increase the efficiency of federal permitting reviews for projects.
Murkowski spent much of the hour-long meeting with reporters ticking off some of the benefits the bill will bring to Alaska, including large investments in the struggling Alaska Marine Highway System, broadband and sanitation systems.
There is “so much good” in the bill for Alaska because Alaska has such little infrastructure to start with, she said. For example, the state is expected to receive $1.4 billion to build and improve broadband in unserved and underserved areas, she said.
“So I am not hesitant at all in saying, ‘Yeah, I got in there and I asked for a lot,’ because Alaska’s needs are pretty significant,” she said.
“But keep in mind, much of what we are talking about in Alaska is not rebuilding,” she said. “We are building for the first time.”
Meeting with the bipartisan group of 10 senators to hammer out details of the bill was critical, she said. They talked over cold pizza around a small table, giving her a chance to highlight the needs in Alaska, particularly in rural and tribal areas, she said.
She emphasized the value of ferries as being as critical as highways to some Alaska communities. She pressed on sanitation needs in Alaska villages. That helped lead to the inclusion of $3.5 billion so the Indian Health Service can provide running water and wastewater in Alaska and on Lower 48 reservations.
“A flush toilet is not too much to ask in this day and age,” she said.
“When I tell them and I show them pictures about what happens in some of our communities where children are hauling buckets of human waste and dumping it into a lagoon, they’re shocked,” she said of the bipartisan group. “And then they’re saying, ‘What can we do, what can we do to help.’ ”
The bill contains so many items, she said originally thought the measure would “die under its own weight.”
But she said said some items were a matter of compromise.
She and Young didn’t like all the money going to mass transit nationally in the bill. Alaska has very little mass transit. But her support for mass transit in other states was a chance to win support for Alaska’s unique ferry system.
“And I say OK, ‘I think that seems a bit too much (for mass transit), but I get where you’re coming from and help me out on the issues that are a little bit different from Massachusetts,’ and that’s where you build a broader understanding,” she said.
“The Alaska delegation I think looked at this critically and said this is infrastructure investment that is needed for our state, and as our state is going to benefit, our country is going to benefit,” she said.