The Tweet came across my feed at 9:03pm: “NEW SCRUM: Blunt, Sullivan and Thune working on MURKOWSKI. If they get her, don’t need McCain.”
There was Lisa Murkowski on the floor of the United States Senate, being pressured by three of her colleagues to support a health care bill that she had already drawn a line against. It was at that moment I knew Lisa Murkowski was not going to flip.
On a dark and windy April evening around 11:30 I was driving back to my apartment on Douglas Island from the state capitol. It was a brutal time. A small group of Republicans in the House had joined with Democrats to push a fiscal plan. Two years left in savings, oil at $20 per barrel, and opposition at every corner. Republicans participating in the efforts were threatened with loss of committee assignments, primary challengers and even false ethics complaints. One of those key Republicans pushing for fiscal solutions including taxes and using permanent fund earnings was then State Representative Lisa Murkowski.
As I pulled up to the stop light at Tenth Street and Harbor Way, the scene became surreal. Streets were totally abandon. I couldn’t see any moving vehicles in sight in either direction. The wind kicked up, causing the free hanging street lights at the intersection to sway back and forth, accompanied by a large boom caused by a gust that had blown over a heavy object in the corner gas station parking lot. I thought to myself, this is every Twilight Zone episode I have ever seen.
The light turned green and I proceeded west over the two lane Douglas Bridge. Still no vehicles in sight. Streets completely abandon. Half way across the bridge I see a car stopped in the middle of the lane. The way it was parked grabbed my attention. The vehicle had come to rest positioned with its front bumper in the oncoming lane. As I got closer I could see it was an old Subaru Loyale station wagon, and then I could see it had legislative license plates. Only one lawmaker drove an old Subaru wagon, and that was Lisa Murkowski.
I jumped out and ran to the passenger side of the vehicle. Nobody. There I was, standing in the middle of the Douglas Bridge, still not a moving thing as far as the eye could see. Lisa’s light blue Subaru parked askew on the middle of a deserted bridge. My natural reaction was to run to the edge of the bridge and look down. Nothing but the dark murky waters of the Gastineau Channel.
My mind racing. Jesus, where is she? What happened? The absence of life on the bridge adding to the mind screw that this was really happening.
I pulled out my cell phone. My fingers frantically dialing Lisa’s cell phone number. No answer. Panic made the mashing of my fingers on the little Nokia keypad almost impossible to accurately dial any number. Finally after two phone calls I reached her Chief of Staff Amy Erickson. “Where’s Lisa I screamed into the phone,” not allowing Amy to answer before I yelled again, “Is she okay?” It turned out her car stalled on the bridged, and with her cell phone dead, she walked the length of the bridge to get help.
The next morning I sat in her capitol office recounting the harrowing story and my wild imagination how the threats and attacks we’d suffered as a result of working on the fiscal plan had possibly caused her to jumped off the Douglas Bridge. After absorbing, which now had become a pretty funny misadventure, she smiled and said, “There isn’t anybody or anything in this building that would make me change what I’m standing for.”
When the Tweet about Lisa getting corralled by three colleagues on the floor of the Senate was posted last night, I knew exactly what she was feeling. I’ve watched her do it a dozen times.
It would first start with a fellow Republican rising on the house floor to ask for a brief at ease. Within twenty seconds you are surrounded by three or more of your colleagues. They take turns parroting talking points as to why you should support the bill, while the others stand in a circle nodding approvingly at every single syllable of the sales pitch. “You’ll get a primary challenger. You’ll jeopardize your re-election chances. You’ll alienate your colleagues. You’ll be giving the opposing party a platform. You’ll be letting down all of those people who donated to the party.” And on and on.
I’ve been through it. A lot of lawmakers have been through it. Usually you stand and nod your head respectfully, like you do when your dentist is lecturing you on the virtues of flossing. But most times there is a voice inside your head screaming, shut the fuck up and return to your seat. I watched her handle these political peer pressure huddles on the floor of the house for years. And every time they failed to keep her from voting on what she believed was best for Alaska.
Fifteen years later, Lisa Murkowski stood on the floor of the United States Senate and once again refused to allow anybody or anything to change what she was standing for. And this time, the entire country got a glimpse of what many of us have seen for twenty years.
Murkowski’s vote against the ACA was based on the desire for a fair process for Alaskans. While her colleagues, including Alaska’s Junior Senator Dan Sullivan, shamelessly caved into pressure from leadership to allow a significant piece of legislation that affects 1/6 of the nation’s economy to be crafted in the worst possible process, Lisa Murkowski had the guts to say, you know I think we need to do better than throw a mystery bill on the floor, that affects millions of Americans, for a vote with two hours notice.
The motion to proceed was a chicken shit procedural move by Senate Republican leadership to avoid the committee process.
You know the committee process, right? That’s the process when experts, advocates, economists, and regular Janes and Joes get to testify on how the legislation will impact their industries, companies and families. It’s a time when medical professionals testify on how it will change for better or worse the delivery of health care for Americans. Maybe the CBO stops by to explain the fiscal ramifications. Maybe health insurers, hospitals and NGO’s offer input on how cuts to Medicaid, Medicare or changes to things like pre-existing condition mandates affect real Americans.
Forty nine senators, including Alaska’s own Dan Sullivan thought that would be too much work. It would be too much hassle, headache and heartburn to hear a parade of evidence that the bill they were proposing would cause premiums to rise, and the individual markets to fall. Too embarrassing to have the nine Republican governors, many from red states who opposed the bill, show up on Capitol Hill and ask their fellow Republicans what the hell they were doing. Too much of an inconvenience to explain to Americans exactly what they were getting with this new health care scheme, even after spending seven years telling Americans the current Affordable Care Act was horrible, and they could do better.
Instead, the entire debate over one of the most critical segments of the nation’s economy, was conducted with two hours notice.
Lisa Murkowski stated from the first moments of the health care discussion that she had concerns about the process. She had concerns about issues such as the elimination of pre-existing condition protections, cost shifts to seniors and cuts to Medicaid and Medicare. But yet instead of extending the olive branch and attempting to address her (and others) concerns, they pushed the bill to the floor to avoid having to talk about how the consequences would be higher premiums, cost shifts to seniors, and the undermining of the individual markets.
Sure it would have been nice if her colleagues, Don Young and Dan Sullivan, had the balls to stand up and say, “Hey, here’s an idea…instead of voting for this just because I want to check a campaign promise off my list, I’m going to ask that we actually put some time and effort into this legislation.” But that didn’t happen. Young and Sullivan have no courage. Their committment to quality health care legislation and addressing the fixable problems of the ACA are belied by their desire for political expediancy.
First Young and then Sullivan publicly said they would support moving the bill forward because they hoped it would get better. It didn’t. In fact it got worse. Even after Murkowski was attacked by fellow Republicans and then President Trump, they said nothing in her defense. These two together proved to be weak sauce.
Meanwhile the Alaska GOP hardliners, most of whom probably didn’t vote for Lisa in the 2016 election (Joe Miller got 29% and those votes didn’t come from Dems) are up in arms. The queen of all political rags, Suzanne Downing has been on overdrive trying to hype Sullivan and drop the bomb on Murkowski.
Must be pretty satisfying when your hero is a guy who got elected on a platform of protecting Alaska’s interest from federal overreach, but when faced with threats from the feds, responds like Buster from Arrested Development. Maybe if the EPA would have attacked Murkowski, then Sullivan would have found his voice.
In the end, Lisa Murkowski was Lisa Murkowski. And she didn’t let anybody or anything in that building change what she was standing for.