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What DC has in store for Alaska in 2016

WASHINGTON -- A new year brings new possibility for Alaska's lawmakers, who have their eyes turned toward energy and health care policy and second chances for the ones that got away, politically speaking. Here's a preview of what may turn out to be an unusually productive year in Washington.

The Supreme Court will hear a case brought by an Alaska moose hunter, and the subsequent ruling -- expected by early summer -- could provide a more definitive answer as to the reach of federal powers in Alaska.

Federal courts will decide the future of the Environmental Protection Agency's controversial rule defining federal reach over U.S. waters.

And the Defense Department will craft a detailed operations plan for the Arctic. Sen. Dan Sullivan won the requirement in a defense authorization bill and hopes that forcing long-term thinking about military strategy in the Arctic could prevent planned troop cuts at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, which are scheduled to begin in 2017.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young will both face reelection bids this year. But so far it's easy going for both -- significant challengers have yet to emerge, and each holds a healthy campaign war chest for the battle ahead.

Murkowski, who holds a prestigious position as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, will head into the year ready to make another go at passing a comprehensive energy package that failed to move in the face of a busy legislative calendar in 2015.

While it's a broad bill aimed at national issues, it would include several Alaska-focused measures -- to boost hydropower development in the state, force the Bureau of Land Management to work with states in managing oil and natural gas production on state and federal lands, authorize Alaska Native corporations to establish tax-free energy assistance programs and promote "microgrid" technologies aimed at providing power to isolated villages.

But she's unlikely to get significant traction on a few other priorities.

Finding a billion dollars to build a new icebreaker will be a tough sell in Congress, where Arctic issues remain at the edge of most minds, despite a high-profile year that included the first presidential trip to the Arctic.

Murkowski hopes that the new year will see new advancements for the Arctic, even if a new icebreaker is unlikely. Obama "was very impressed by what he saw in Alaska. I think he wants to try to lead in this area," Murkowski said in a recent interview. The president's budget proposal at the start of the year will provide that opportunity, she said, if he gives weight to Arctic infrastructure needs.

Murkowski also hopes that the U.S. leadership position on the international Arctic Council will shed new national light on Alaska. She's lobbying for the next ministerial meeting to take place in Fairbanks -- "as close to the Arctic as possible," she said.

Another of Murkowski's Alaska priorities that isn't likely to see much steam in 2016 is revenue sharing for offshore drilling. Murkowski did not include it in her major energy package. She instead paired the measure with another of her pet priorities, lifting the ban on U.S. exports of crude oil. But this year's major spending bill included lifting the crude export ban, leaving offshore revenues off on their lonesome.

Given Shell's decision to drop Arctic drilling and the federal government's cancellation of new lease sales, it will be difficult to drum up a sense of urgency on Capitol Hill.

But Murkowski will try again on several other legislative fronts, including pushing for a law that would reverse the Interior secretary's rejection of a road out of King Cove through the Izembek Wildlife Refuge.

Though it didn't make it into this year's spending bill, the King Cove fight is the sort of thing likely to end up as a "rider" on a spending bill. The real question is whether that will happen once the presidential race starts interfering with action in Washington, as it traditionally does.

Murkowski will try to bring fellow lawmakers around to the needs of rural Alaskans by dragging them up to the state in February for energy committee field hearings in Bethel, "with a focus on energy innovation and technology."

"We've got a lot going on with microgrids, as we know, and I want my colleagues to see what life is like in an Arctic environment. While Bethel is much south of the Arctic Circle, when you look at how the Arctic is defined on our map, it includes that coastline there," Murkowski said. "I'm hopeful that we will not only get some members of the committee out there but also some interesting guests to testify. We have our invites out."

Sullivan, meanwhile hopes to push for a more comprehensive model of legislating. He voted against the Republican-led spending bill in December, discouraged by a closed-door negotiating process among leaders and their staff on Capitol Hill.

In 2016 he plans to "work hard -- with many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle -- because the system's broken," he said.

"I'm somebody who's very focused on economic growth: less government, more economic freedom," Sullivan said.

And he hopes to advance a provision to help rural community health programs -- a new law that he said is being held from the floor by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

Rep. Don Young, who marked his 42nd year in Congress with a new wife and celebrated the birth of his first great-grandson, agrees with Sullivan's take on how the recent tax and spending bill was negotiated.

"It's a bad way to legislate," Young said.

It's hard to say if Congress will be able to go through the traditional process -- passing 12 appropriations bills through the House and Senate -- Young said, pointing to the slow ways of the Senate: "They jam us at the end of the session."

In the new year, Young would like to see more changes to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

"Insurance forms and insurance bills have to be made more simple," Young said.

"I get tons of correspondence because I'm a mature citizen, and I think I'm pretty lucid, and I just think about people that are home by themselves" and besieged by insurance letters and bills. "How do you interpret that? It shouldn't be that difficult. And it is difficult. Very frustrating," Young said.

"So you've got to acknowledge reality. So if we can't repeal Obamacare, let's come out with a substantive (measure) that does get the same thing we wanted in the first place. Cross-line insurance, pooling insurance ... preexisting conditions -- all that could have been done in 10 pages."

"I think you're going to see a proposal that we're going to put on the floor to try to simplify Obamacare," though an outright repeal has always been unlikely, he said.

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