Afterward, Murkowski held a wide-ranging press conference with area reporters, covering topics from the future of federal earmarks to her controversial Sealaska lands selection legislation.
The conversation also touched on her historic write-in victory in November’s election.
“I got back to Washington, D.C., and everybody’s slapping me on the back and saying ‘I knew you could do it.’ Of course they didn’t,” she said. “They were all lying to me there, they know that. But I think many were genuinely pleased to know that I was back.”
That’s Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who lost her party’s nomination to the Senate in the primary last year, but won the seat as a write-in candidate.
“I’m back in a different capacity,” she said. “I’m somewhat of a novelty in the sense that I got back without the backing of that traditional party structure. I was not my party’s nominee. There’s a certain amount of freedom in that. I think what has happened for some of my colleagues that you don’t assume that you know what Murkowski is going to do. She’s not just going to take that party line position. You darn well better go ask her.”
In the months ahead, one of the issues on which she’ll likely buck the party trend will be federal earmarks – money set aside in the federal budget to be spent on specific programs or purposes. Many of her colleagues in Congress would like to see earmarks disappear.
“Everything is on the table,” Murkowski said. “And I think those programs that perhaps benefit fewer Americans are unfortunately more prominently on the table. I don’t think that that’s right but I think that is a fact. I’m concerned about the future for Secure Rural Schools, just as I’m concerned about the future of Denali Commission, of bypass mail. We saw the run on Essential Air Services – those things that don’t make up that much in terms of the overall federal budget but mean a lot to us as a state, I think there’s going to be a lot of eyes looking to go after them. And we’re going to have to be diligent.”
Many of those eyes looking to make swift and strong budget cuts belong to newly elected members of Congress who had backing from the Tea Party movement. Murkowski said they’re well-intentioned but that it’s short-sighted to cut without considering the impact those cuts will have. And she says Congress must, at all costs, avoid a government shutdown, similar to the one that happened in 1994.
“Those who do remember that are saying ‘We have to stay as far away from that as possible. I will single out the Tea Party folks who believe that sometimes the best thing to do is shoot the hostage here,” she said.
As soon as the words were spoken, she paused, and acknowledged that members of Congress have been trying to soften their rhetoric given recent events in the news.
“But you know what I’m saying. They believe that we’ve got to push this as far as we can push it so that we can get to where they want to be. I don’t think that is the best thing for the nation. Maybe they either don’t recall it, or view history a little bit differently than perhaps you and I might. (“But that group does hold sway in the Republican caucus in the House.”) They do. They absolutely do. No denying it.”
The Senate gavels back into session on Monday. Work on the federal budget comes in the weeks ahead. Also ahead will be the re-introduction of her controversial lands selection legislation.
“I’m not starting from ground zero,” she said.
Representative Don Young said during last fall’s campaign that he’d plan to introduce the legislation as it originally appeared: that is, without the changes resulting from hours of public hearings and listening sessions last spring and earlier this week. Murkowski says for her, that’s not an option.
“We are building off of so much that we had learned,” she said. “For instance, here in Sitka, there was a real concern that Big Bay was included as one of those futures sites. We’ve taken that off the table.”
Murkowski says she plans to review comments taken at the most recent hearings, in Ketchikan and Craig earlier this week, when she gets back to Washington.
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