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As Snow Blankets Capitol, 'the Arctic Senator' Holds Court

Murkowski aims to focus the Senate's attention to the Arctic. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Last year, as the U.S. prepared to assume its two-year chairmanship of the intergovernmental Arctic Council, Maine independent Angus King decided he wanted to be “the Arctic senator.”  

But when he told Alaska’s senior senator about his plan, she shot him down. Sen. Lisa Murkowski told King he could “be the assistant Arctic senator,” King said Thursday, during a hearing on Arctic opportunities that crystallized Murkowski’s perch as the leader on policy issues in the upper latitudes. Holding the gavel on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, gives Murkowksi a platform to elevate the science and environmental issues of the Arctic, a region she has long sought to promote. The Republican from the Last Frontier kept the hearing on track, despite a snowstorm that shut down federal and local governments and canceled scheduled sessions of the House and Senate.  

“Thank you for keeping this important and historic hearing on the schedule,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, of Washington, the panel’s top Democrat. “There is a bit of irony that the backdrop of this hearing is weather, when in fact the changes in weather conditions demands that the United States come up with an Arctic strategy and implement it, so I’m very grateful that your passion and leadership prevailed here today.”  

Almost every seat was taken, with nearly 70 people packed into the committee room on the third floor of the Dirksen to talk trade, climate change, maritime law and Coast Guard resources. A Cox TV crew working on a weather story about the 4 to 8 inches predicted to fall throughout the day showed up to capture the only Senate hearing still happening on Capitol Hill.  

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, suggested the senators who made it through the winter weather deserved a “gold star” for being present. Of the committee's 22 members, eight were in the room for part or all of the the more than two-hour hearing.  

“Today is a somewhat fitting reminder as we’re out in the snow and talking about weather and elements,” Murkowski said in her opening statement, one of dozens of references to the snowglobe view through the windows. “Unfortunately, I think so many people associate the Arctic with just weather — that’s all they think about. And so, I think it’s important that we remind them of the people of the Arctic … the 4 million people that live in the Arctic.”  

On the eve of the hearing, Murkowski took to the Senate floor to debut another effort aimed at opening a broader conversation on the challenges and opportunities in the region. In coordination with King, she is inviting colleagues to join the Senate Arctic Caucus, an initiative she’s long pressed with the State Department.  

A decade ago, as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, Murkowski asked Condoleezza Rice what she would do if confirmed as secretary of State to ensure the Arctic remained a zone of peace.  

“I think I caught her flatfooted,” Murkowksi said in her floor speech. “The next time I saw her before the Foreign Relations Committee, she was up to speed and engaged. But I can state with some certainty here that in 2005, the State Department was just not prepared to have a discussion on these issues.”  

Cantwell is also concerned with diplomacy, particularly as it relates to maritime law. During the hearing, she emphasized the need to ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, written in 1982, but never ratified by the U.S. Cantwell hopes to renew interest in the treaty in the 114th Congress.  

Sen. Bernard Sanders expressed concern about how climate change is impacting the Arctic, another issue Murkowski and King hope will generate interest in the Arctic Caucus. Sanders pressed witnesses from the State Department, the Alaska State Legislature and the Maine Port Authority on whether they agree with what the scientific community is saying about the need to transform the nation's energy system away from fossil fuel.  

Murkowski is also using trade relationships to turn her colleagues to Arctic matters. Thirty percent of Colorado's exports go to Arctic nations, she said, in comments directed at Republican Cory Gardner. For Maine, the figure is 52 percent. As she pointed out to Sen. Al Franken, about 30 percent of his state of Minnesota's exports go to Arctic nations.  

"A lot of that's to Alaska," Franken piped up, evoking some muted laughter from the crowd. A smile slowly spread across Murkowski's face. "That was early morning humor," Franken murmured.  

“It is early morning humor,” Murkowski agreed, laughing, before steering the snowy hearing's focus back to the Arctic Circle.  

To Hirono, Murkowksi had another tailored pitch. Hawaii's exports to Arctic nations are less than 4 percent of the state's totals, "but I think what happens with Alaska and Hawaii is we [loan] a lot of our Alaskans in this time of year to you for tourism," she said. "So I think you appreciate very well the full benefit coming out of … the Arctic."  

Related: Murkowski Warns Alaskans Ending Filibusters Could Be Dangerous Alaska, Hawaii Delegations Look to Build On Relations The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: policy