Democrats and their allies off the Hill pushed back hard at the Trump administration on Thursday after a report that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened projects important to Alaska in retribution for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s vote against health care legislation.
House Democrats vowed to seek an investigation into Zinke’s call to Murkowski and fellow Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan on Wednesday — a day after Murkowski voted against taking up Obamacare repeal — to warn them that the administration’s support for energy projects in the state are now at risk. And a conservation group that often works with Democrats sought internal documents on Zinke’s calls as well as to any others that he may have made to other GOP swing votes on health care.
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The Freedom of Information Act request filed by the group, the Western Values Project, seeks records of any contact Zinke made with the Alaskan senators as well as Sens. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), according to a copy shared with POLITICO.
The group plans to sue Interior to force the release of any relevant information that it doesn’t receive by the time its legal window closes, Executive Director Chris Saeger said.
Meanwhile, Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee plan later Thursday to seek an investigation conducted by the Government Accountability Office or Interior’s independent inspector general, according to a spokesman.
Murkowski confirmed to reporters Thursday that the call with Zinke took place, as well as a second call she received from President Donald Trump on Tuesday, the day she voted with Collins against taking up the GOP’s Obamacare repeal bill.
She denied any suggestion that she had used her power as chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Zinke’s department, to hit back by postponing a committee meeting that would have included votes on three Interior nominees.
In addition to her energy panel gavel, Murkowski chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee in charge of deciding how much money Interior has to spend each year.
Zinke holds ample sway over the state of Alaska, where the federal government controls 61 percent of the land in the state. Interior is reviewing a multitude of projects tied to Alaska energy development, including a possible opening of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas drilling and allowing offshore oil drilling in currently off-limits Arctic waters.
Sullivan touted that potential to develop more of the state’s resources in urging that his senior senator and the Trump administration return to harmony.
“[T]hat cooperation has been very useful and very important in the last six months, reversing what the previous administration did to Alaska,” Sullivan told reporters. “So, from my perspective, the sooner we can get back to that kind of cooperation between the administration and the chairman of the [energy] committee, the better for Alaska and the better for the country.”
Asked if he had any advice for Murkowski, Sullivan demurred: “I’m not telling Sen. Murkowski anything. I work super closely with Sen. Murkowski, but that’s my statement.”
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) offered advice of his own to the Trump administration on the matter. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve seldom seen threats to be very effective,” Blunt said.
Arizona’s Raul Grijalva, the House Natural Resources panel’s top Democrat, said Zinke had crossed the line.
“Running a department of the federal government means you serve the American people as a protector of their rights and freedoms,” Grijalva said in a statement. “It doesn’t mean you serve the president as a bag man for his political vendettas. Threatening to punish your rivals as political blackmail is something we’d see from the Kremlin.”
Beyond its stewardship over oil and gas resources, Interior also has the final say over whether to allow a road through Alaska’s Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to take residents of an isolated village reach a nearby hospital, something Murkowski has pushed for years.
“Even if this road provides health care access to hundreds, which is very much in doubt, Secretary Zinke thinks the price to build it is a vote to deny health care access to millions,” Grijalva said.
Zinke’s phone call, first reported by the Alaska Dispatch News, came after Trump tweeted his displeasure with Murkowski’s vote. But Murkowski is unlikely to face serious political consequences in the near term. She will not be up for reelection again until 2022, and she has previously proved her political mettle in the state — winning a rare write-in victory to be reelected in 2010 after she lost the GOP primary to a Tea Party challenger.
The Interior Department and House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop declined to comment through spokespeople.
Alaska Oil & Gas Association President Kara Moriarty called the threats “unfortunate.”
“As the secretary has said, they want to have American energy dominance, and the only way to do that is through Alaska,” Moriarty told POLITICO. “When the time comes when Alaskan energy projects are in front of Congress, I hope they are considered on their merits and not used as a political chits.”
Environmentalists were unsparing in their assessment.
“Ryan Zinke is revealing himself as Trump’s hitman. He’s now threatening to hold public lands and energy policy hostage over a health care bill. This is the U.S. government, not the Corleone family,” Jennifer Rokala, the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, said in a statement.
Zinke is not the first member of Trump’s Cabinet without a health care portfolio to insert himself into the debate over the Senate’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. The Energy Department earlier this week posted then deleted a tweet saying it was time to “discard” the law, with a link to an op-ed on the subject from Secretary Rick Perry.
Energy and Commerce ranking member Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) asked GAO Wednesday to investigate whether Perry or others at DOE violated federal laws relating to lobbying and influencing the public.
Meanwhile, some Republicans back in Alaska said Murkowski’s vote was stirring up trouble for her at home, with state GOP Chairman Tuckerman Babcock saying his party is in “full revolt.”
“I think among Republicans it is causing tremendous damage,” Babcock said in a phone interview Thursday, citing “a grassroots swell” of comments on Facebook pages for the party, Murkowski and Sullivan. “It’s evident to me that the Republicans [in Alaska] are in full revolt over the idea that these promises aren’t going to be kept.”
He added that Interior’s ownership of so much of Alaska raises the stakes of any clash with Zinke.
“What the secretary of Interior does will have a major impact on Alaska. He’s absolutely vital to moving forward with the development of the coastal plain at ANWR, National Petroleum Reserve on the Western North Slope, building the road from King Cove, the land exchange that Congressman Young has gotten through the House of Representatives,” Babcock said.
“I’m just hitting the tip of the iceberg on how important a cooperative relationship is with that department.”
Seung Min Kim and Jake Lahut contributed to this report.