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Sen. Sullivan talks Afghanistan and what's new in Washington

Sabine Poux/KDLL

Sen. Dan Sullivan has been an outspoken critic of the Biden Administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Sullivan himself served in Afghanistan and last week, he signed onto a letter asking the State Department to expand eligibility for the Afghan Special Immigration Visas program.
We talked to him in Soldotna Wednesday about that letter, climate change and the infrastructure bill he just voted to pass through the senate.
KDLL: So you signed onto a letter asking the State Department to expand eligibility for the Afghan Special Immigration Visas program. Can you explain kind of your decision to sign on to that and kind of what your office is doing to work through this situation in Afghanistan right now?

Dan Sullivan: Sure. I led the letter, I didn't just sign it, I led it. And it's, I think we got about almost 20 senators.

Now, that was before the chaos of this week, right? And so, my view, the mission right now — which the execution of the Biden Administration's plan has clearly been botched, I don't think anyone who watches TV or understands anything about Afghanistan, the Middle East, would argue with that.

So, to me, the priority number one, even before what's in that letter, is to get American citizens out safely. Part of the real huge, you know, dismay, that I've seen, this week that so many Americans are experiencing is that, you know, we have now probably thousands of Americans cut off behind the lines in Taliban-controlled territory. So, number-one priority is to focus on getting those Americans out safely.

And I'm gonna — as a member of the Armed Services Committee — continue to be very, very aggressive in my oversight capability, in that regard.

So that's number one. Now, to be honest, I didn't think we're gonna have to be talking about this until a couple days ago when this mission went completely south.

But number two is to then help the Afghans who helped us. You know, we can show you the clip from a hearing back in April, where I was questioning the CENTCOM [United States Central Command] commander in charge of the whole Middle East, on this issue of, you know, “Do you believe countries have honor?” I asked him that question. He's a marine, four-star general. I'm a marine. He said, “I do believe countries have honor.” And I said, “So do I.”

And if an Afghan man or woman trusted us, risked their lives to either be an interpreter or work at a school that we set up for Afghan girls or to run for parliament, which we encouraged women to do — all of these Afghanis are going to be at an enormous risk. We know that. It's a fact.

My view is, regardless of what the Taliban is saying right now, they're gonna be hunted down and killed. A, that's a humanitarian crisis. But, B, that's a stain on the honor of America. The people who are sacrificing for us over 20 years are now being left to die.

So my letter said to the secretary of state, look, right now, we passed very recently in Congress, about two weeks ago, what's called a supplemental appropriations for special immigrant visas, SIVs. And the State Department read that and said, we can bring out people who worked directly for the U.S. military, like an interpreter, or worked directly for the State Department in the embassy. 

The point of that letter was saying, hey, there's a group of Afghanis who might not have worked directly for the military, but they were working for U.S. democracy and civil society organizations, a lot of whom, I would say,most of whom are women. 

And so my letter said, make sure that you interpret the law and the authority and the money we just gave you to include this broader category of people who, at the end of the day, it's a distinction without a difference. Whether you were paid directly by the Marines as an interpreter, or you were paid by an American civil society group like the International Republican Institute. We should still try to get those people out, too.

And so that was the point of the letter. You may have seen it was high level Democrat senators and Republican senators. And we're trying to give guidance to Secretary Blinken in the State Department. We got to take care of these people.

But right now, number-one priority is to take care of the Americans who are at risk there. 

KDLL: Have you heard any followup from the State Department on that letter?

DS: No. But I've been listening to Blinken talk about who they are trying to get out after, again, the priority American citizens. And he does seem to be speaking more broadly. Which may or may not be an impact on that letter, but I think it probably is.

KDLL: Do you personally know anyone who's over there? Have you been talking to any folks over there who you're worried about in particular?

DS: You know, I don't know anybody who's over there now. But I know a lot of people who served over there. I served over there.

And, you know, the biggest concern I have — you know, I had a good friend who was killed over there. The biggest concern I have is the Gold Star families — spouses, moms, dads— who lost a son or daughter over there, or the Afghan vet, you know, who lost a limb or something over there, they're looking and seeing this chaos, and the Taliban running roughshod over the whole country in the city, and they're starting to question whether or not their sacrifices were worth it. Or worse, were in vain.

I was really upset that the president's statement to the country the other day did not include anything — anything — that addressed that topic. The one thing that commander in chief could have done, should have done in my view, is look at the camera and say, “If you sacrificed over there over the last 20 years, your sacrifice was not in vain. If you're the, you know, gold star spouse who lost her husband, his death was not in vain.”

A, because, you know, we haven't had a major terrorist attack on our country since 9/11 — 20 years. My view is, that's for one reason — because we were taking the fight to them, in their country, in their region.

And then, second, because anyone, in my view, who has ever sacrificed for the country — our country, in any war — is not sacrificed in vain. If you're fighting for American liberty or national security and you've been asked to go do it by the commander in chief ….

So Biden should have said that. And I think, Alaskans, if they see a vet, they know someone who's struggling, it's hard to watch those images, if you think it wasn't worth it. And I think what we need to do as a state — a state with more veterans, per capita, than any state in the country — is to make sure we're telling people that, particularly if they're having doubts. Especially the Afghan vets and their families, and we have a lot of those in our state.

KDLL: I'd like to switch gears a little bit. Do you support Rep. Huffman’s [D-California] Magnuson-Stevens [reauthorization] bill?

DS: No.

KDLL: Why not?

DS: Because he's a far-left liberal who is influenced by far-left environmental groups. So I don't support it.

KDLL: Is there anything in the bill, in particular, that you don't like?

DS: I don't know, [or] have all the details of the bill. But I guarantee you there's a ton I don't like in that bill.

KDLL: You voted in favor of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. And what in the bill should be exciting to folks in this part of the state in the Kenai Peninsula?

DS: Well, look, it’s important to recognize what this bill is. And so the Biden Administration put forward a $2 trillion relief bill in February, which I didn't think we needed. They passed that on party lines, so I voted no on that.

They immediately after the Senate passed this infrastructure bill, which was actually $550 billion in new spending, over five years — so the $1.2 trillion is actually not exactly accurate — then they put forward a very different bill: $3.5 trillion, which was more socialism, social spending, and I completely oppose that.

So this is essentially an infrastructure bill that was built on what was the highway bill — and that's a committee I serve on— the Environment and Public Works bill, the surface transportation bill and a wastewater bill, for water and sewer. 

My view: These are all things, hugely important issues for Alaska. We are a resource-rich but infrastructure-poor state. We have an infrastructure deficit here that Alaskans are aware of. But the rest of the country isn't.

For example, we weren't able to take advantage of the huge buildout of the national highway system in the ’50s, during President Eisenhower, when everybody else was. We have less road miles than Connecticut. And we are almost 120 times bigger than Connecticut. We have the worst broadband and internet connectivity in the country. By far. We have over 30 communities that don't have flush toilets and running water. American citizens.

So, I'm a conservative who cares about infrastructure. And the vast majority of Alaskan senators over the years have. So, there's a number of things in there that I don't like, but they're on balance, the things that benefit Alaska. 

A massive plus-up of our federal highway funds. A lot of people don't know about — it's close to 90 percent of the infrastructure money that comes to the state. It goes to the state, right, the State Department of Transportation divvies that out, almost 90 percent of that is federal dollars. So, huge on highways.

Significant money on ports and bridges. A very big plus up on broadband because it has a whole provision to address states that are unserved. Unserved.

Permitting reform, which I really care about. The Trump Administration had an executive order that President Biden, when he got in, rescinded almost on day one. We got a number of those things — one federal decision, two- to three-year permitting timelines that were in the Trump administration executive order — into law. 

And a significant plus up for our ferry system.

So, to me, this is an important piece of legislation completely separate from the $3.5 trillion Bernie Sanders socialist bill.

And this was, you know, the Trump administration had their own permitting, or, I'm sorry, their own infrastructure bill, which is about $1.5 trillion that the president was pushing for.

So when it comes to basic infrastructure — roads, bridges, ports, highways, broadband, which I now consider, I think most people consider basic infrastructure — that's what the majority of this bill is focused on. 

And, again, the other good news, from my perspective on this, is the vast majority the money goes to the state of Alaska. So I already called the governor on this saying, ‘Hey, if this passes — and we'll see if it does in the House — there's going to be significant funds that the state will be in charge of.’ And I think that's the best way to approach things, which is, state in charge, Feds help out. So we'll see what happens.

KDLL: Well, I'd like to quickly ask you, too, I know, part of that bill, there's loan guarantees, potentially, for the Alaska LNG project. Are you a proponent for that project?

DS: Oh, I'm a huge proponent for that project. So, I've been working on that project, well, like a lot of people, for well over a decade. And the fact that we were able to get $18 billion dollars in loan guarantees for the Alaska LNG project, which, of course, would enormously benefit the Kenai, is something that is — Is that going to make the project go? I don't know. But it's certainly gonna bring down the cost.

When you have the federal government guaranteeing your loans, you can borrow at very, very significant reduced interest rates. And so all of a sudden, AK LNG is going to be able to borrow at very, very low interest rates, which could be the key to unlocking what we, as Alaskans, have been trying to get done for decades. And that could be a spur and that's also in the bill, which I think was important.

KDLL: Fisheries. You mentioned you think a lot about fisheries when you're in D.C. What are you working on right now in regards to commercial and sport fisheries here in Alaska?

DS: Well, look, one of the ones I just mentioned, we have this issue called the RQE, which deals with the halibut quotas between kind of the commercial and sport and charter groups. It's actually an area — a lot of times, you know, there's some contention between the different groups. This is an issue that unites people because it takes excess quota and enables it to be utilized by the sport fish charter community.

I got that passed last year, it was attached to a broader bill that, unfortunately, the president vetoed. And I was working on it all last week, I got one senator who's still kind of in the way of trying to clear it. But that's an important one.

And then, just the disposition of the funds during — the COVID relief funds — during last year, the CARES Act, when we had no idea what was going to be hitting our state and our country, March of 2020, we passed this legislation, and I was able to get a set-aside of money for fisheries. 

And then in an additional relief bill, I was able to get more money, $600 million total, about $100 million going to Alaskan fisheries — commercial, sport. You know, that doesn't save you. But that's not insignificant amounts of money.

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy between the federal government and the state government has made that very slow to get out the door, which has been a frustration of mine. But I think we're on the verge of that. And so the execution of that and getting that relief money, finally, out to Alaska fishermen, is something I'm very focused on.

KDLL: The UN just released this report, kind of putting some numbers and, you know, pictures to the situation with climate change right now and how human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are playing a large part in that. Are you feeling kind of any urgency about that situation after seeing that report?

DS: Well, I haven't read the report yet. But I will tell you this — I'm putting together a Republican plan to deal with issues of the economy, energy, jobs, the environment. And we'll be rolling that out soon. It's going to be very, very different from the Biden plan.

The Biden plan right now is, my view, makes no sense. They want to shut down oil and gas production in America, and I think more to virtue signal than to do anything with regard to greenhouse gas emissions globally.

And whatI think we need to do is utilize our resources. And we can lead in a way that helps our workers, helps our economy and continues to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Let me give you an example. From 2005 to 2019, the United States reduced global greenhouse gas emissions more than any other country in the world by far. How do we do that? It wasn't the Paris Climate Accords or anything like that. It was the revolution in the production of American natural gas. That's what happened. And we reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by almost 15 percent.  Meanwhile, China's up by like 30 percent over that time. 

My view is, one of the best things we can do, is going to be a centerpiece of my plan, is to not only produce American natural gas, clean-burning Alaska natural gas, use it for our state, our citizens, our citizens in America, but export it around the world. You get that to India, China, Korea, Taiwan, that will do more to address global greenhouse gas emissions than anything I can imagine.

We have a plan that we're putting together and I'd be glad to brief you on it when we roll it out here. Probably in September.

KDLL: Well, and do you have any vision for how something like that would play out here on the peninsula, in Cook Inlet, an area where there is a lot of natural gas production and also a lot of renewable energy resources? Have you thought about this part of the state kind of playing a role in that?

DS: Absolutely. You know, like I always like to say, Alaska is an all-of-the-above energy state. Depending on where you are, it depends on what people are utilizing in terms of their energy resources. Kodiak is almost 100 percent renewable given their hydro- and wind-power generation. That's phenomenal. There's communities and Southeast that are 100 percent renewable because they have huge hydro power generation sources. So, to me, we need to look at truly all of the above.

You may have seen the secretary of Energy was here, recently. I wrote her a letter, an open letter for Alaskans to read. And I met with her two nights ago and walked through the letter. Right. And on the letter I said A, number one, madam secretary, with all due respect, the national security adviser for President Biden just made a plea to all the OPEC countries — Saudi Arabia, Russia — to produce more oil. Are you kidding me? How about asking Alaskans to produce more oil, as opposed to our adversaries?

You know, a lot of that money — and I know this, because I used to work on it prior to becoming a senator — money that goes to Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Iran. You know, we know that some of those revenues go to fund terrorism. So, I said, here's a better plan: Let's produce more oil in Alaska, and you help us do it. So that's number one.

Number two, I did talk about the question you raise, Sabine, which is the $18 billion in loan guarantees for the AK LNG project. So that would be great for the country, great for jobs, great for Alaska. And it would help if we're exporting clean-burning Alaska natural gas to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions more than anything. So, madam secretary, you should be making this an important part of your tenure.

And then the final thing I said is, hey, as we look to build out the American renewable sector, right, all of the above, we need to make sure we're not just importing renewable technology, like wind turbines and solar panels and critical minerals from China. Why would we do that?

So, as a matter of fact, last week, when we were debating this budget resolution, which I opposed, I was able to get an amendment that all the senators had to vote on saying any federal dollars or subsidies going to renewable technology, or critical minerals, has to come from America or our allies, but can't come from China. And a lot of the far left environmental groups oppose my amendment. Ninety U.S. senators voted for it. Ninety.

So, to me, we have critical minerals here. We have rare earth elements in Alaska. The Kenai has tons of gas. So we should source that traditional energy, renewable energy, critical mineral energy and minerals in America, not from communist China. So I think that's a huge issue.

She said she would support me on that, and support Alaskan mineral development. So we'll see.

KDLL: Do you have any thoughts on the recent decision on the Willow Project?

DS: I just heard about it. But as you can imagine, that's an issue I've been working on for years. And I am — I haven't read it yet. But I'm going to refrain from commenting on [U.S. District Court] Judge Gleason, who seems to make decisions that try to crush the working men and women of Alaska with no legal justification. But that seems to be her MO.

But otherwise, I'm not going to comment.

KDLL: The rate of vaccination [against COVID-19] on the Kenai Peninsula is pretty low. What would you say to folks who are thinking about getting vaccinated on the Kenai Peninsula?

DS: Look, my view has always been it's an individual choice. Government should not be mandating it, and that's number one.

I got vaccinated after, you know, I waited a while and I waited, you know, they, I think they offered it to senators in December. I said, ‘I'm gonna wait ’til it would be my turn back home.’ And I think I got vaccinated in April or … [in that] timeframe.

So, I think it's an individual decision. If you have issues that you're worried about, you know, consult your medical professionals.

But we all want to put this pandemic in the rearview mirror. And we all want to do that. And I think that's important.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.
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