Report: Interior chief warns Alaska senators on health care

WASHINGTON (AP) — Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke called Alaska’s two Republican senators and warned of repercussions for the nation’s largest state if they failed to toe the Trump administration line on health care, according to a published report.

The Alaska Dispatch News reported Thursday that Zinke called Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and complained that Murkowski’s vote against proceeding on legislation to repeal “Obamacare” had put Alaska’s future with the administration in jeopardy. Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie to advance the measure earlier this week.

Sullivan told the newspaper that the call from Zinke heralded a “troubling message.” Questioned by reporters on Thursday, Sullivan declined to discuss his conversations with administration officials. A spokeswoman for Murkowski, Nicole Daigle, confirmed that she received a call from Zinke but would not characterize it.

The Interior Department had no comment on the report.

The notion of a Cabinet official warning senators of retribution over health care is highly unusual, even as Trump has lashed out at GOP members of Congress for balking over his policies. On Wednesday, Trump tweeted at Murkowski: “Senator (at)lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

Murkowski, who was re-elected to a new six-year term last year, is chairman of the powerful Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which has say over Interior business and nominations. On Thursday, a committee hearing on nominations was postponed, with Daigle citing “scheduling uncertainties.”

Alaska has a range of issues affected by the federal government, including proposals to build a road through a remote wildlife refuge and drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Several Alaskans also have been nominated for key posts at Interior, and Murkowski and Sullivan have pushed to expand drilling on federal land in Alaska’s North Slope near the Arctic Ocean.

Sullivan told the newspaper: “I’m not going to go into the details, but I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop.”

“I tried to push back on behalf of all Alaskans. We’re facing some difficult times and there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the policies that Secretary Zinke and the president have been talking about with regard to our economy. But the message was pretty clear,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan told reporters on Thursday that resource development is critical for his state, which he said is in recession.

“From my perspective, the sooner we can get back to cooperation between the administration and the chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the better,” he said, referring to Murkowski.

In a statement, Murkowski said that she has pledged to work with Trump to help advance Alaska’s interests.

“I will continue to do that — to help build and strengthen our economy, keep the promises made to us as a state, and ensure access to health care. While I have disagreed with the Senate process so far, the president and I agree that the status quo with health care in our country is not acceptable and that reforms must be made,” she said.

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