Democrats demand investigation of ‘political blackmail’ against Murkowski

The top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee said Thursday he will request a formal investigation into whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke threatened projects important to Alaska in retribution for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s vote against health care legislation.

Zinke called Murkowski and fellow Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan Wednesday afternoon — a day after Murkowski voted against taking up the bill to repeal Obamacare — to warn them that the administration’s support for energy projects in the state are now at risk, Sullivan told the Alaska Dispatch News. The "message was pretty clear," Sullivan said.

Citing that report, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) 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. Secretary Zinke’s willingness to deliver these threats speaks volumes about his ethical standards and demonstrates that Interior’s policy positions are up for political grabs, rather than based on science or the public interest.”

Natural Resources Democrats plan to send a letter today calling for an investigation conducted by possibly the GAO or inspector general’s office, said committee spokesman Adam Sarvana.

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.

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.

But Murkowski is not without her own levers of influence over Zinke. She chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over his department, as well as the Appropriations subcommittee in charge of deciding how much money Interior has to spend each year. Wednesday afternoon, the energy committee abruptly postponed a meeting that would have included votes on three Interior nominees.

Zinke’s reported phone call came after President Donald Trump tweeted his displeasure with Murkowski’s vote. But there are relatively few political consequences Murkowski could face 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.

Spokespeople for the Interior Department, Murkowski and Sullivan did not respond to requests for comment. A spokeswoman for House Natural Resources Chairman Rob Bishop declined to comment.

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. "Congress and the administration should discuss America’s energy and lands policy on the merits, without mob-inspired threats from the Department of the Interior and the White House.”

Zinke is not the first member of Trump’s Cabinet without a healthcare 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 makes 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.”

Jake Lahut contributed to this report.

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