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Alaska Sen. Murkowski's Balancing Act


Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska attracted the ire of the Trump administration for her votes against the Senate effort to undo Obamacare. She voted against continuing debate on the bill on Tuesday. And then on Friday, she was one of three Republican senators who voted against the legislation. Elizabeth Harball of Alaska Public Media in Anchorage reports.

ELIZABETH HARBALL, BYLINE: In the midst of the Obamacare repeal debate, Senator Murkowski stood firm that her allegiance was to her constituents.


LISA MURKOWSKI: I'm here to help the people of Alaska. And I'm here to help the people of the country.

HARBALL: But speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, Murkowski's message to the president was that she's still willing to cooperate.


MURKOWSKI: I'll work with you, Mr. President. I want to work with you because we have issues that need to be resolved, whether it's Alaska's energy issues or promises made to our state or health care.

HARBALL: It's those two issues, health care and energy, that are causing Alaskans to give Murkowski's actions in Washington this week mixed reviews. At a hotdog stand in downtown Anchorage, Heidi Sheldon (ph) is deciding what to grab for lunch.

HEIDI SHELDON: Probably the reindeer sausage.

HARBALL: Like a lot of Alaskans, Sheldon's following the news surrounding Murkowski's stand on health care. She voted for Murkowski but did not vote for Donald Trump. She thinks the senator did the right thing on health care.

SHELDON: I think it was good that she didn't just go with all the other Republicans. It was a promise that she made that she wouldn't just repeal something without having a good thing in place.

ZACHARY STEVENS: I think that she is a Democrat posing as a Republican.

HARBALL: Zachary Stevens (ph) was outside an Anchorage grocery store where he was picking up supplies for a fishing trip. Stevens wants Obamacare repealed. He's also heard news that the Trump administration threatened to pull back support for energy-related projects in Alaska because of Murkowski's votes. President Trump tweeted out his disapproval saying, quote, "she really let the Republicans and our country down."

Then both Murkowski and Alaska's junior senator, Republican Dan Sullivan, got phone calls from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. According to Murkowski's spokesperson, Zinke told her that Trump was not pleased. Before heading into the grocery store, Zachary Stevens said that's all the more reason for Murkowski to start cooperating with her party on repealing Obamacare.

STEVENS: I hope that Senator Murkowski does what's in the best interest of Alaskans. So if she's getting that kind of pressure about energy and stuff from the presidential administration that she does what's going to be right for her constituents.

HARBALL: Many Alaskans viewed Zinke's call to Murkowski as a threat. The Department of the Interior holds sway over many of the senator's top priorities for Alaska. The state's economy is highly dependent on the oil industry. And the Interior Department controls lands and waters crucial to drilling. Suzanne Downing is former communications director of the Alaska Republican Party and now runs a well-known conservative blog.

She says Alaskans shouldn't underestimate how much power Interior has over their state.

SUZANNE DOWNING: We really care about our economy. We really care about our resource. The president knows and I think Zinke knows that. The rest of the nation, it's not top of mind for them. So they can really hurt us if they want.

HARBALL: But Murkowski has power of her own. She's chair of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. That means she's a key player when it comes to approving the Trump administration's budget and its nominations for the Interior Department. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Harball in Anchorage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Harball