GOP pushes Murkowski to stay in line against Biden’s Covid bill

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Senate Republicans are leaning on Lisa Murkowski to reject President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan, hoping they can get unanimous GOP opposition and prevent Democrats from claiming the bill is bipartisan.

Most in the GOP think that the senator will ultimately side with them. In particular, they expect Murkowski to vote no on the first procedural vote on the measure, expected later Thursday. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said, both publicly and privately, that he wants a united GOP casting 50 "no" votes.

Asked about the Alaskan on Thursday, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), the No. 3 GOP leader, dug out a paper clipping of a Washington Post story about Murkowski.

“Sen. McConnell has been very clear on that, for all Republicans. The goal is to present a united front against this massive spending bill,” Barrasso said. “It’s my hope that every Republican would vote no at a time we’re in a 50-50 Senate.”

Murkowski is unique, however, and so is her home of Alaska. The state is suffering economically, the pandemic has exacerbated the state’s woes, and she’s complained repeatedly that Biden’s less fossil fuel-friendly energy policies are hurting Alaskans. Moreover, her state changed its primary system recently to dilute the possibility of a conservative or Trump-inspired challenger, giving her room to legislate from the middle.

The centrist senator has held talks with the Biden administration about her state’s unique situation for several days now. She also cast a committee vote to support Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) to be Interior secretary on Thursday, even after her party portrayed Haaland’s energy policies as radical and despite some of her own policy reservations about the nomination.

But the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill is a much bigger matter than Haaland. And Murkowski’s approach to it is clearly on GOP leaders’ minds.

"Her vote’s her vote, but I’m hopeful she’ll be there. And I think all of our members are going to [oppose the bill] in the end,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the No. 2 GOP leader.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is leading opposition to the bill, said he has his "fingers crossed" that Murkowski joins the opposition. Technically Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is also not a hard no, although she is unlikely to support the bill.

Murkowski called herself “listening Lisa” on Wednesday, admitting she was torn over what to do about the Covid legislation and talking to members in both parties. The moderate Republican is frustrated that Democrats have ignored bipartisan entreaties and written a bill that isn’t more narrowly focused on coronavirus relief spending.

Yet Murkowski also has acknowledged that her state is in a perilous situation that complicates the straightforward partisan calculus involved in opposing the massive recovery measure. She said she wants Democrats to make the case for why the bill is good for Alaska and clearly wants some changes to the legislation.

“I’ve been working with people to try to make what many of us consider a bill that has way too much excess. [I’m] trying to make it better,” Murkowski said.

The Alaska senator can be tough to read and even harder to predict. She voted against repealing Obamacare, opposed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation and supported Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett — even as she railed against the process used to confirm Barrett.

Neera Tanden and the Biden administration lobbied Murkowski hard on her vote as Tanden fought to become Biden’s budget chief, a nomination that was pulled earlier this week. Much of their discussions centered on Alaska.

But in comparison to previous moments of uncertainty about Murkowski, Republicans are nudging her more directly to stay in their corner on the coronavirus bill.

“I hope that she would. Obviously, it’s a pretty toxic bill,” said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.). “Alaska’s definitely a unique state, to say the least. But it is still part of a $2 trillion consequence, long-term, for the whole country.”

“We all look at our own states. And none of us begrudge the fact that she will look at that. We are hopeful that she will decide the amount of bad in the bill is enough to where she will decide it’s not appropriate to support it,” said Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.).

The Biden administration’s rejection of 10 GOP senators’ entreaties for an aisle-crossing negotiation “has a part to play in this," Rounds added.

But so too does local politics. Murkowski is up for reelection in 2022, and she is keen on standing up for the interests of her state. She told Capitol reporters on Wednesday that she wants to be shown how "this huge $1.9 trillion proposal, how this helps a state like Alaska.”

“My state needs relief. If Congress is going to move this much money out the door, how am I going to make sure that states like Alaska … get access to those rescue dollars?” she asked.

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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