While in Sitka on Friday, Senator Lisa Murkowski toured Mt. SEARHC’s Edgecumbe Hospital with Facilities Director Greg McIntyre. Her Senate vote the night before quashed a Republican-led effort to repeal Obamacare. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Less than 24 hours after her critical vote on health care, Senator Lisa Murkowski returned to her home state. In Sitka on Friday (7-28-17), she sat down with reporters for her first in-depth interview. Murkowski told KCAW that the bill on the floor wasn’t ready for a vote and left Alaskans in the dark about the future of their health insurance.

Downloadable audio.

If Senator Lisa Murkowski is in the eye of a political power struggle over health care, you wouldn’t know it from her overnight appearance in Sitka. The vote ended after 2 a.m. She was on a plane at 8 a.m. to tour Mt. Edgecume Hospital, meet with local leaders, and go fishing with her son.

“I’m happy,” she told KCAW and the Daily Sitka Sentinel. “And then I have to go back to D.C.”

Back to D.C., where her “no” vote on Thursday (7-25-17) helped kill a Republican-led effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

Murkowski agrees with President Donald Trump that the law is flawed.”We still have high costs, high premiums, we still have limited access,” she said, but she thinks there are parts of Obamacare worth saving — particularly around Medicaid expansion.

In explaining her vote, she focused her criticism on process: on attempting to repeal Obamacare without a replacement system, writing policies behind closed doors without a committee, and going to the floor sans support from Democrats. She compared it to 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was passed without a Republican vote. “We’ve been blaming the Democrats about that for years.And now we’re going to do it as Republicans just the same way they did? Passing this one on our own? Why would we not come together?” Murkowski said.

After she voted on Tuesday (7-24-17) against advancing the so-called “skinny repeal,” Trump tweeted that she let the country down.

Murkowski also said Trump called her on the phone.

Murkowski: The President and I had a very hard phone call. He was very direct.

KCAW: How do you stand that pressure though? When the President of the United States calls you and wants a piece of partisan legislation to go through?

Murkowski: You know….that’s a good question because there’s a lot at stake with healthcare, where so much is personal to so many. When you know that people are counting on you to be their voice, it really does cause you to stand up a little bit straighter and maybe have a little bit more backbone to just say, “I know everybody is saying this, but I need you to hear this.”

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke also placed a call to both Murkowski and Senator Dan Sullivan.

Of that call, Murkowski said, “I do not believe that Secretary Zinke was being threatening or intimidating. He was just delivering a message that the President was not happy with my vote.” She would not talk about the Zinke call, nor a report from the Alaska Dispatch News that the President would hamper Alaska’s energy and resource development as slap on the wrist for her vote.

When asked whether the alleged threats to Alaska would bear out, Murkowski said, “I don’t believe that threats and intimidation are a good way to win over friends and gain support. But I also recognize that there are different styles of trying to gain support.”

With the Republican Party moving right-of-center, Murkowski’s moderate voice is standing out. She began her Senate career in 2002, appointed by her father and former U.S. Senator and Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski. When she ran for reelection in 2016, she did not endorse Trump.

Murkowski wants any future health care reform to happen in committee, with public hearings and participation from both sides of the aisle. Senators Susan Collins of Maine and John McCain of Arizona seemed to agree with her. Before voting, she says McCain told her on the Senate floor, “Lisa, do what you know is right.

“It reminded me of the old Ted Stevens phrase he would say, ‘To hell with politics. Do what’s right for Alaska,'” Murkowski said.

Murkowski is singing a different tune than she did in 2015, when she voted for an outright repeal of Obamacare. But doing so now, she says – when Alaska has only one health insurance provider – would be irresponsible.

Moving forward, she had choice words for her colleagues about letting the President control the conversation. “You can just say, ‘It’s going to be a tough day and I don’t know how we’re going to get anything done.’ Or the Congress can stand up, get its act together and push back,” Murkowski said.

Speaking of push back, Murkowski was met by a group of protesting Shee Atiká shareholders outside Harrigan Centennial Hall. They’re upset with her support of the corporation’s planned sale of 22,000 acres around Cube Cove to the U.S. Forest Service. That land would be folded into the Admiralty Island National Monument.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski met with Stormy Powell and several other Shee Atiká shareholders who oppose the corporation’s sale of 22,000 acres of Cube Cove land. Murkowski’s bill S.3004 gave that sale traction. (Photo by Clarice Johnson)

Shareholder David Kanosh opposes the land sale and thinks that Murkowski’s faith in Shee Atiká’s current leadership is misguided.”I think she needs to be informed on Shee Atiká’s lack of communication and obstruction of letting shareholders have a voice,” Kanosh said.

That’s not her only land bill. Murkowski also introduced legislation to convey 19 acres of federal land to SEARHC, which is why she was touring Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital.

SEARHC beneficiary Edith Johnson has been following Murkowski’s spotlight in the national health care debate and had a plan if she bumped into the Senator in Sitka. “I would shake her hand and I would say thank you. I feel like she did the right thing,” Johnson said.

Murkowski also met with a handful of local leaders from the City and Borough of Sitka, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Chamber of Commerce, Sitka Economic Development Association, and Sitka Conservation Society to learn where they’d like federal support. They talked about energy, transportation, and the seafood industry. It was an altogether low-key visit for someone making headlines around the world.