When Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg had to get to the small community of Haines, Alaska, last month, the state’s senior Republican senator privately hoped for bad travel karma.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski wanted Buttigieg to confront the same obstacles the residents of her state experience all the time.
And he did. Bad weather meant Buttigieg couldn’t take the usual quick plane ride from Juneau to Haines. Instead, he traveled aboard Plan B — an early morning, five-hour ferry ride along the state’s “marine highway.”
While on it, Murkowski made the case to him that Alaska’s tenuous transportation system needs federal support. She had a clear message: Alaska is unique. It can’t be treated like the other 49 states.
Buttigieg wasn’t the only Cabinet member to hear the mantra. Throughout August, nearly a dozen Cabinet and senior administration officials have made the long trek to the nation’s most northern state and the home of the Republican senator who has proven most likely to work with the president.
The list of travelers includes Attorney General Merrick Garland, HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, EPA Administrator Michael Regan, White House senior adviser Mitch Landrieu, Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau, and senior HHS administrator Tom Coderre, among others. The visitors all left their suits at home, donning polo shirts and rain jackets for their tours.
Alaska, while beautiful in the summer, is not exactly close to Washington D.C. But few senators are as critical to the Biden agenda as Murkowski. Her influence in the tightly controlled Senate has made her a magnet for top White House staff. And both she and her fellow Republican senator, Dan Sullivan, have used that newfound audience to their advantage, leaning on administration officials to take Alaska’s uniqueness seriously: far larger and far less populated than other states, with many communities that are not reachable by reliable internet, let alone roads.
On Monday, Murkowksi will reel in the biggest fish when President Joe Biden, on his way back from the G20 summit and Vietnam, will visit her state to mark the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“People can be critical of me and say that I support too much of the Biden administration,” Murkowski said in an interview. “I have to work with whoever is president, I have to work with whoever the Cabinet officials are. I just can’t hold my breath and say, ‘Let’s wait it out for four years,’ because then the people in Alaska suffer.”
Early in the Biden administration, Murkowski and Sullivan were go-to votes when Democrats had to venture to the other side of the aisle. They were two of the four Republicans who backed Deb Haaland for Interior secretary, and two of the six Republicans to cross party lines for DHS’s Alejandro Mayorkas. Sullivan introduced Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at his hearing. Just last week, Murkowski and Sullivan saved the nomination of National Labor Relations Board member Gwynne Wilcox.
Their willingness to help the administration has, in turn, given them influence. Two years ago, the administration pulled the nomination of Elizabeth Klein to be Interior’s deputy secretary after pushback from Murkowski. Earlier this year, the administration angered progressives and climate activists to approve the huge oil drilling project known as Willow, a priority Murkowski pushed with Biden for months.
But there are limits to Murkowski’s reach — and her courtship of Biden officials. The same day of the NLRB vote, the administration canceled oil and gas leases in the state’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, drawing the ire of both senators. Murkowski said she was given a head’s up on the decision but had no sway. There was no negotiation.
The 2017 GOP tax law had included the opening of ANWR, and Murkowski didn’t mince words about how she viewed the decision to undermine that policy.
“The law was pretty clear in 2017,” she said. She called the latest decision “unlawful.”
Late last year, the state elected Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola, a moderate who met with several of the administration officials during their recent visits but who has criticized some of their decisions, including last week’s leasing announcement.
Inside the administration, White House officials view Alaska’s senators as Republicans who are willing to listen.
“President Biden promised to fight for all Americans — wherever they live, whatever their views are — and to find common ground with Republicans in Congress,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates. “He appreciates Sen. Murkowski’s willingness to work across the aisle, as well as Sen. Sullivan’s votes for priorities like infrastructure, and Rep. Peltola’s advocacy for Alaska.”
The Cabinet travel is not exclusively about courting the state’s delegation. It is part of Biden’s ongoing approach of working with lawmakers on the other side when possible, according to a person familiar with the outreach and granted anonymity to describe the relationship.
The rush of official travel up north last month is partially a result of a pandemic backlog and the good weather of August that makes it one of the best times to visit. Several of the visits fulfilled promises made during Senate confirmation to venture to the state. Sullivan asks all nominees to commit to visiting Alaska. Murkowski starts her confirmation conversations with a quiz about whether they’ve ever visited.
Murkowski argues that policymakers often cannot understand Alaska — one-fifth the size of the lower 48 states, but with fewer road miles than Connecticut — until they see it for themselves. In her eyes, getting up to Alaska is a means of proving their seriousness.
But a mere trip is not what Murkowksi is after. It’s the ear of the Cabinet member and the policies and regulations they can affect that she craves.
Buttigieg said “the right words in support of the Alaska Marine Highway System” ahead of the visit, Murkowski said, adding that the secretary was helpful in facilitating funding for the program that she secured in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“The way that he talked about the Marine Highway System after our five and a half hours on the ship was, ‘Wow, people need this in order to get to their medical appointments, in order to get their kids to school, in order to move their household goods when they’re in the military,’” Murkowski said.
In the same way that Buttigieg’s travel delays provided a window into the needs of the state, the remote nature of Alaska also dawned on Garland during his visit. After bad weather fouled up his visit to the village of Huslia, the attorney general spoke about the difficulties law enforcement officials have in addressing emergencies in a community that’s only accessible by plane or boat.
“We had a United States Marshals plane. We had a United States Air Force plane. And still, with the weather, we weren’t able to get there,” Garland said at an event in Anchorage. “I can’t imagine what would happen in the circumstance if there was an emergency in one of the villages without roads, how hard it would be to get there.”
Other visitors to Alaska last month include Small Business Administration Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman, HHS Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, National Park Service Director Charles Sams and Indian Health Service Director Roselyn Tso. Earlier this summer, Haaland, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and first lady Jill Biden paid visits to the state. In some cases, too many officials were in far-flung locations at the same time, and Murkowski missed some of them.
For Murkowski, it’s a beneficial political pipeline even if, in public, she tries to downplay the politics.
“I hope that they’re listening to me, and I would hope that they give me the courtesy of listening to me, because I have allowed myself an open mind to sit down with them even though we may disagree on certain policy issues,” Murkowski said.
“I’m sure it’s just my charming personality that attracts them all.”