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Murkowski talks Supreme Court vacancy, voting rights legislation on peninsula visit

Jeff Chen/Alaska Public Media

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is known for sometimes breaking with her party on major issues. She was the only Senate Republican to vote to advance the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act before it was consolidated and quashed this month. Last year, she was one of just a few Republicans to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Jackson’s name is now coming up in discussions about the impending vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Murkowski is up for reelection this November. We spoke with her over Zoom during a visit to her home state about that voting legislation, the Supreme Court vacancy and the status of COVID-19 relief.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

KDLL: Why don't we jump in and start with the most recent news. 

President Biden said today that he'd like to have someone nominated for the Supreme Court vacancy next month, and people are throwing around Ketanji Brown Jackson's name. You are one of the three Republican senators to vote yes for her appointment to the appeals court.

Do you have thoughts on a potential Supreme Court appointment for this vacancy? 

Sen. Lisa Murkowski: You know, we all just saw the news just yesterday that Justice [Stephen] Breyer was going to be announcing this morning. He's obviously confirmed that. So we will begin that process.

I have not had any conversations with anybody either back in Washington or in phone calls here about who the potential nominee may be. It's not breaking news to remind people that President Biden had made a statement, or perhaps several statements, that he would like to be the first president to nominate an African American woman to the Supreme Court. And I think this is where you're seeing the focus on not only Ketanji Jackson but several of the others.

You have indicated that I did support her for that district court nomination. But keep in mind there is a pretty tangible difference between being on a district court, a circuit court and then this Supreme Court. These are lifetime appointments. My role in the advice and consent is one that I take very, very seriously.

So I will look at any nominee who comes forward with very critical review and analysis. I think it's well known that I take my time. I deliberate. This is probably one of the more significant roles that I have as a sitting senator, is to provide my vote or abstain or withhold my vote for Supreme Court nominee. So I'm going to be looking to see who the president puts forward. I hope that we give this the due time and consideration without kind of rushing through quickly.

I think that Justice Breyer has said that he will stay on the bench until the end of the summer term. So it's not as if we've got to fill a vacancy immediately. This is important, we need to do it.

KDLL: Speaking of the Supreme Court, we just passed the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. And in terms of the recent appointments – you did not vote to confirm [Brett] Kavanaugh to the court. But you did vote “yes” on [Amy Coney] Barrett.

Are you worried about the court overturning Roe at this point?

LM: Well, I don't know if – We don't know where the court may go, whether it's actual overturning of Roe or whether it would be an erosion of Roe v. Wade, or whether or not it's the status quo. And so there's a lot of speculation. I think there's been a lot of reading of the tea leaves from the arguments that were made earlier this year.

I am one who has said that the provisions within Roe v. Wade that allow for a woman to to make a very difficult decision as to whether or not to proceed with an abortion – that the limitations that the court has put in place are ones that have been in place now for some 40-plus years. And ensuring that the precedents that have been created with Roe v. Wade, that those protections for women and their reproductive rights, are continued.

So I'm looking at this with a great deal of interest, but I don't have any more insight as to where the court may take this than anyone else out there.

KDLL: Turning to voting rights, something that's been dominating the conversation recently.

You said you support reform to voting rights laws. But you didn't approve of the way the voting rights bills were sent through Congress recently and, rather, you'd like to figure out a compromise.

What do you think that compromise would look like? Where do we go from here?

LM: Well, it's a good question. And it's one that we are already on course with taking the next steps.

You've indicated that I wanted to try to find an approach and a process that was actually going to gain support of the Congress. And in order to do that, you can't approach this from just, ‘What is the position on the Democrat side of the aisle?’ You've got to have bipartisan support.

I was the only Republican that stepped forward and said I think there are good strong considerations, valid considerations within the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. I worked with colleagues to try to move that in a better direction. We weren't all the way there, but I think we were moving in the right place.

But what happened was, rather than trying to find a level of consensus, either with the John Lewis Voting Rights Act or with what they were doing with some of the other election reforms, the Democrat majority just decided, ‘We're gonna do it on our own. And we're going to do it on our own in a way that was actually going to require eliminating or pulling back on a process rule or procedural rule, that of the filibuster, in the Senate.’

Voting rights are significant and important on a host of different levels. They're critical to our democracy. And the thought that we would just try to move through with a bare minimum majority – you know, you’ve got a Senate that’s divided 50/50, you're relying on your vice president to break it. That's not how voting rights that protect the rights and the privileges of Americans around the country, that's not how it should advance.

So you ask the question, ‘What comes next?’ I'm already meeting with a group – I think it's a significant number, we've got about 16. It's bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats. And we're looking to what we can actually pass into law that would address some of the issues and the real conundrum that we saw during the counting of the electoral votes where there just wasn't clarity. There wasn't certainty as to what is the vice president's role here.

So we're looking specifically at the Electoral Count Act, we're looking at what more can be done to provide for the security of poll workers. We are looking to, in what way can we ensure that from a cyber perspective, our elections are more secure. We're looking to those areas where we can provide state support to put in place protocols that, again, will ensure that we're removing barriers to voting. We are making sure that our elections are free and fair and transparent.

So there's a good working group that's already formed. We had the vote [on the voting rights bill] last week and then the Senate broke for a week recess so we could be back in our home states. And we've already been working over Zoom calls and the telephone and we're going to have our first in-person meeting on Monday. 

So those who think that the message was sent and the Republicans didn't move and the Democrats didn't move and so nothing's going to happen here, I think they need to know that there is a very concerted effort to try to address the real issues and concerns that we saw, we saw reflected on Jan. 6 and leading up to that. We've got a responsibility to address it. We're going to work together to do it.

KDLL: Do you think that's something that's going to come to fruition within this year?

LM: That's this year. Our goal is not to develop a messaging bill. We've already done that. The Freedom to Vote Act was a messaging bill. And what I mean by that is if the Democrats really wanted to try to pass that, what they would have done is they would have tried to build the support to get 60 votes for it. And there was no effort to do that. Because I think for them it was more effective to just be able to say, ‘We want to make sure that elections are sound and fair and we protect voting rights and Republicans don't. See? There's not a single person that has joined in this effort.’

So it was a message for them. Well, we don't need to have a message. What we need to do is we need to clear up some of the ambiguities that are in a law that's, like, 150 years old.

Let's not send a message. Let's actually develop legislation that not only gets a bare minimum to pass, but gets a vast majority of the Senate and the House and can be signed into law.

So, I think we've got a really strong working group reflective of folks on both sides of the aisle, all the way to the far right and all the way to – maybe not all the way to the far left and maybe not all the way to the far right. Maybe to the right and to the left and in the middle there. I’ve got to be honest.

KDLL: Pivoting to talking a little bit more Alaska-specific – talking about energy and our state's energy economy, there has been a lot of conversation at the local level about renewables and how this area of the state, in particular, the Cook Inlet area, might diversify its energy economy. And there's been a lot of talk of solar and tidal energy.

What can be done at the federal level to help with that progress? Are there any bills or things that you're thinking about on a federal level that would have to do with advancing the renewable economy in Alaska?

LM: Yes. There's not only things that we're thinking forward on but there's also some things that we've done just within this past year that help, whether it's the Kenai Peninsula here with renewables or really anywhere in the state.

I was able to build and get enacted into law a measure that we call the Energy Act of 2020 that really authorized and laid the groundwork for demonstration projects in so many different areas of renewables, whether it is on the hydro-kinetic side, geothermal. Obviously there's a lot that's already going on within wind and solar, but in the other renewable areas, as well.

You know, here on the peninsula, I think we have extraordinary opportunities when it comes to tidal. Here in the Cook Inlet, we have some of the strongest and highest tides in the world. And so those who are looking at how we can harness that renewable energy source.

Just across the bay here, you have geothermal opportunities that I think are extraordinary. And we've looked at themover the years and for lots of different reasons projects haven't advanced. 

But I think folks on the peninsula should be encouraged to know that not only did we put in place the authorizing language for renewable energy opportunities, but then with passage of this bipartisan infrastructure billthat I worked so hard on all of last year, that what we effectively did there was to fund the authorized initiatives that we had put in place through the energy act.

So it's two specific measures that I led on, that we now have in place into law.

So when we think about diversification of our energy portfolio here in Alaska, I think we need to be looking at this really broadly, because we have more renewable opportunities than I think any other state out there. You think about our hydropower and all that that provides us, particularly in areas like the Southeast. But, you know, you just need to look down past Homer, you've got Bradley Lake there.

But what more can be coming on again with tidal, with geothermal. Our wind. Clearly our wind today. Solar is not going to work very well today, I'm afraid to tell you.

But the biomass – we really do have more of everything here in this state. I think we're just limited by our imagination and the opportunities that will present themselves with financing. That's always the hard issue for us. But I think we've got some opportunities with this infrastructure bill.

KDLL: Commercial fishing relief is also something that you've worked on. And I just want to quickly ask – I think COVID relief funds can be a bit of a black box for folks and they come out in different phases and stages. 

Can you kind of situate us here? What else are we expecting to see on the COVID relief fund front here in Alaska?

LM: Well, as it relates to fisheries funding, you're right. There was funding that came through the COVID relief package. In fact, it was the latest round of assistance to fishermen, whether it was commercial, whether it was charter operators, subsistence. The latest round came just before Christmas. I think that that was very welcome news for so many of our fishermen and fishing families.

The Department of Commerce just notified us – what was it, last week – that the fisheries disaster declarations that had been sent forward from the state, some from as far back as 2018, that those declarations have been declared or accepted at the federal level now.

What we have to do is move forward through the appropriations process, and get that fisheries assistance out to the fishermen. It's an imperfect process, and I think this is a good example of what I'm working on with many others in the Senate to address what you've called kind of a ‘black box’ here.

There's no timeline right now. There's no requirement that on the federal end, this declaration of disaster needs to be wrapped up by. And so, again, if you've had a disaster that happened in 2018, we're sitting here in 2022 and you're saying, ‘Really? You think that that's going to help me? In the meantime. I've got a boat mortgage that I've got to be paying. I've got a crew that I've got to be paying. This doesn't help me at all.’

So what we are working on is legislation that really puts the fire under the Department of Commerce and the agencies to work this more quickly and in a more transparent way.

It still doesn't resolve the issue of moving it more more rapidly through appropriations. But at least those who have been impacted have some sense as to what they may expect.

On the COVID side, there was COVID money, there was the [American Rescue Plan Act] funding that came out last year. But right now, there's not an effort in the Senate to be working on yet an additional package of COVID relief that that our fishermen would count on. It’s basically these fisheries disasters that we're talking about now.

KDLL: Got it. 

You know, I have to ask about Jan. 6. And I'm kind of curious, two parts to this – one, about the way you think it's being handled by this [Jan. 6 select] committee.

And two, the Anchorage Daily News reported this week that the Alaska State House is considering taking some sort of action against Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) because he was part of a group that was linked to the insurrection. And I'm curious if you have thoughts on that, those two things there. 

LM: Really, let me comment on the commission, because I don't think it's appropriate for me to weigh in with what the Legislature may or may not do with another member. That is clearly within their wheelhouse there.

But, you know, I was one who said I think that we need an independent commission, not unlike what we did after 9/11. And that was rejected in the Senate, which I think was unfortunate. Because what you're seeing now is the inquiry is going forward, the investigation is going forward, but everything that is being seen is then being criticized by those on the right and saying, ‘Well, it's because it's wholly partisan.’

Well, that's true. But we could have had a say in this. We could have said, ‘No, we need to have an independent – to the extent that it's possible – unbiased review of this.’

And so now, you've got a situation where anything that is going to come out of this investigation, this commission, is going to be viewed as just a partisan witch hunt, if you will. That's not helpful for us. 

I was there. I was one of the 100 in the Senate chamber, that was locked in that chamber, that was told to run through the basement to a secured location. Basically, don't look back, just keep running, keep running.

You know, you can't change the facts of what happened on that day. But what we do need to understand is, really, what led up to it? And let's learn from that so that we never, ever, ever repeat that.

And so I'm looking with great interest at what this House investigation is bringing forward. But my fear is that whatever it may be, anything is going to be criticized as, ‘Well, it’s wholly partisan.’ And I think that we could have avoided this. And I think that the country would have been better off in a place where they could look at a report and say, ‘Hmm. There's some credibility to that and maybe we've learned something here.’

KDLL: The last thing I wanted to ask is there's been a conversationabout salvaging parts of Build Back Better [Act]. Is there anything that was part of Build Back Better that you liked that you would like to see go through to the next level?

LM: Yeah, there actually is. There's some things on the energy side that I think would be helpful for us.

I mentioned hydropower earlier. And I've been working on a bill with Sen. [Maria] Cantwell (D-Wash.) that would allow for tax credits for new construction for hydro. That would be really, really, really helpful for us in this state. And that was one of those provisions within Build Back Better. And I look at that and say, ‘That's something to work on.’

I'm actually talking with my colleague, chairman of the energy committee, Sen. [Joe] Manchin (D-W.Va.), about whether or not there are some energy and some climate-related provisions that we can put in in kind of a smaller package.

In fairness, I think Build Back Better as the whole meal deal is probably dead. And in my view, that's good because it was everything but the kitchen sink that was going into it. 

Almost all of it was matters that had really never had any process, never seen any committee work. And it's a price tag of, you know, round numbers, between $3.5 and $4.5 trillion, on top of everything else that has been spent.

We don't need additional inflationary pressures. Anybody who's shopping at any store is going to tell you we don't need that.

But are there some pieces of it that we can look at and say, ‘Alright. Could we put this through a regular process?’ Could we run a bill that takes some of these elements – some of the energy provisions, quite honestly, were just a poke in the eye toward Alaska, they were offensive – get rid of the offensive stuff, but do a smaller, more discrete package focused in a way that allows you to have some process and some input? Build legislation the way that we should, instead of in the back room of the majority leader's office and just putting it on the floor and saying, ‘Take it or leave it.’ That's not how you legislate.

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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