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Alaska Senators Pressured by Trump's Team Over ACA Votes

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has threatened Alaska’s senators with retribution on major energy and public lands decisions because one of them voted against repealing Obamacare, according to one of the lawmakers.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski was one of only two Republicans Tuesday to vote against starting debate on a bill to repeal the health care legislation. On Wednesday, Zinke called Murkowski and fellow Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and linked their public lands’ priorities to votes on the matter, Sullivan told the Alaska Dispatch News.

(Related: Some GOP Senators Cast Mixed ACA Change Bill Votes)

“The message was pretty clear,” Sullivan, who supported the Republican repeal effort, told the paper. “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.”

He described the exchange as a “troubling message.” Alaska is a major oil producer and the federal government is its largest landowner, with 60% of the total area.

Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and abruptly delayed committee votes scheduled for Thursday on several Interior Department nominations without explanation.

A White House spokeswoman referred inquiries to the Interior Department which didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Murkowski and Sullivan’s offices also didn’t respond to calls and emails seeking comment.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump tweeted, “Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!”

“Ryan Zinke is revealing himself as Trump’s hitman,” said Jennifer Rokala, executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based public lands and energy watchdog group. “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.”

Zinke’s reported threats to Alaska senators to punish their state over health care votes is “political blackmail” and “something we’d see from the Kremlin,” says Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.

“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.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had no extra votes in his bid to begin debate on the repeal of Obamacare, with Vice President Mike Pence casting the 51st vote, allowing the chamber to begin debating Republican plans to overhaul the health insurance bill. The effort still faces an uncertain path as McConnell failed to get enough support for his overhaul bill and for a straight repeal of the law.

The Senate continues to debate the measure. 

— Read 5 Better Care Bill Revision Highlights for Agents on ThinkAdvisor.