Senator Lisa Murkowski brings national debates to Seward
Heidi Zemach | For the LOG
Senator Lisa Murkowski addresses a full house at the Seward Chamber of Commerce business luncheon Friday.
When Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) visited Seward Friday, May 4, she attended a Chamber of Commerce business luncheon, talked about the incredible opportunities for Alaska to take advantage of changes in the Arctic Ocean affecting maritime shipping routes, and later made herself available to members of the local press.
Murkowski was warmly treated here in Seward, but was still smarting from the stings of her speech at the Alaska Republican Party Convention being interrupted by hecklers, and the rude treatment of the special guest she had brought along, Wyoming Senator John Brasso, who the new Republican faction of Ron Paul and George Miller supporters booed, shouted down, and then pointedly ignored.
Seen by some as a moderate in the Republican Party on social issues, Murkowski also had taken a verbal thrashing from Alaskan women when she returned to her state recently after voting with her party for the Blunt Amendment. The amendment to the Senate transportation bill, had it passed, would have allowed employers to decide whether to allow contraceptives, or any other health service to be covered by their employee health plan, after citing moral reasons. It failed by 52-48 votes in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Murkowski told “Anchorage Daily News” reporters later that she had never cast a vote where she felt she had let more people down who had believed in her. The senator said she had voted with the Republican Party because she had hoped to send a message that the health care law needed stronger protections for religious conscience. But the focus of the debate had since changed, and had turned into a battle against contraceptive rights that she did not agree with.
During Friday’s interview in Seward, LOG reporter Heidi Zemach asked whether Murkowski planned to continue to be a moderate force in the Republican Party when it comes to women’s or social issues, even if it means going against members of her own party leadership including prospective presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.
Murkowski: “If it’s something where I feel that women are being either ignored, or their views aren’t being heard, it’s only appropriate that we speak up and it shouldn’t make any difference who your president or who your leadership is. I am representing the people of the state of Alaska, men, women and children of the state of Alaska, so I’m not looking at this as whether it’s good for Republicans or bad for Republicans. I do believe that there have been some statements made and some actions taken that would make it appear that either theres a lack of sensitivity towards women and women’s issues, or perhaps a misunderstanding, and so if that’s happening I’m going to acknowledge that.”
Zemach: You know it is happening, I mean they are passing laws all over the country about who can get contraception, or an abortion, and who can’t, even if someone is raped.
Vanta Shafer: ...and requiring trans-vaginal ultrasound. I mean, you wouldn’t do that to a man!
Murkowski: “You’re correct, and what I have said is particularly with the issue of contraception. I kind of have assumed that we resolved that, disposed of that as an issue decades ago. And so when you have issues that present themselves, or comments that are made by those in a leadership position that would suggest that they’re not settled, that in fact that access to contraception might be in jeopardy, I think it causes women who are busy doing a lot of things; running a city, running a newspaper, raising a family, taking care of elderly parents, worried about what you’re paying for gas for fuel, trying to figure out whether you’ve got enough money to retire, we’ve all got enough on our mind, we don’t need to be worried about whether or not contraception is going to continue to be made available and accessible. That the rights that we have taken for decades as women are somehow now in question, and this whole kind of concept that we should be rolling back the clock on some of these women’s issue is something again, that I find somewhat troubling. So as a person who’s in a position in leadership, when we have those matters come before us, we figure out a way to speak up and to provide that assurance that in fact this is not a part of the Republican design.”
But Murkowski appeared less supportive of women’s preventative health care when weighed against something like the nation’s student-loan burden. Murkowski, whose two sons are in college, said she believes unsubsidized federal student (Stafford) low-interest rate loans should be kept at the current 3.4 percent, rather than doubling to 6.8 percent, which will happen if Congress does not act by July 1. Although both parties in the Senate want to freeze federal college loan rates for one more year, Murkowski supports the Republican senator’s version of a bill which would be financed by eliminating a preventative health program fund set up during Obama’s 2010 health care overhaul. The GOP’s Student Interest Rate Reduction Act would take money from the health care law’s Prevention and Public Health Fund for prevention, wellness and public-health activities, administered by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, who has control over how the money would be spent.
Calling it a “slush fund” Murkowski told the Seward room filled with small business people that it’s hard to find pots of federal money available these days to help run the costs of government programs while trying to offset a $15 trillion national debt. Saying she was “all for prevention” especially as a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension’s Committee. But Murkowski said she nevertheless prefers the Republican proposal to the Democrat’s student loan rate freeze that, as she put it, “taxes small businesses” such as those attending the Chamber luncheon. The Democrat’s bill actually proposes to collect more Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes from high-earning owners of some privately-held corporations.
On another matter of local interest, Murkowski announced that the J-1 Foreign Student Visa program that supplies a great deal of the local seasonal workforce for fish processors will not be ended this summer fishing season, as was feared. Jeffrey Zients, the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget has agreed to exempt fish processors from the temporary federal rule-making changes to the J-1 Visa program, at least until November 2012, after an extended public comment period. The senator said Zients changed his mind after she spent over an hour on the phone to him the previous evening, and explaining the detrimental effects that the rule would have on Alaska’s processing and fishing sector, and the communities that rely solely on fishing here. Democratic Alaska Senator Mark Begich and Congressman Don Young also had been lobbying the OMB, along with Murkowski for the fish processing-sector exemption since early March.