U.S. Sen. Frank Murkowski is most publicly associated with a single issue: the drive to open a sliver of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
He has been in the Senate since 1980, about as long as the national argument over whether to look for oil in the portion of ANWR designated by Congress as a site of potential exploration. For all his time in the chamber he has sat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the panel with jurisdiction over the ANWR debate.
Since 1995 Alaska's junior senator -- an odd tag for someone with two decades' service -- became chairman of that committee and acquired a larger soapbox on which to proclaim ANWR's benefits. A few times in those many years Murkowski and his supporters, most of them Republican but some of them Democrat, came close to winning approval for ANWR development.
But last year, with ANWR drilling defeated yet again at the hands of Democrats, Murkowski decided to leave the Senate.
And with him goes the leading senatorial voice on allowing drilling in ANWR.
And with him, quite possibly, goes an Alaska seat on the energy committee.
So when the 108th Congress convenes in January, who in Washington, now that prospects for drilling have brightened with GOP control of the House, Senate and presidency, will lead the public fight against what is surely to be fierce opposition from environmental groups?
Fortunately for Alaskans, the incoming chairman, Sen. Pete Domenici of New Mexico, appears friendly to ANWR drilling. A look at the voting record of Domenici, who was elected to the Senate in 1972 and who for the last 22 years has been the top Republican on the Senate Budget Commit-tee, shows steady support for ANWR drilling. The energy sector was a top contributor to his re-election this month.
We hope he will be as vocal and passionate in the public debate over ANWR as was Murkowski.
But Domenici may need advice -- and a nudge -- from time to time on ANWR and other Alaska issues.
To that end, Murkowski's Senate replacement should vigorously seek a seat on the energy committee, which in addition to having oversight of energy issues has jurisdiction over important Alaska matters such as the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
There is no guarantee that a Republican seat will be available for the state's new senator, however. The Republican senatorial caucus makes its committee assignments based on seniority, and in this Alaska's new senator will have a slight edge over incoming freshmen. Even so, the GOP seats on the 22-member energy committee could be full by the time Alaska's new member gets to choose committee slots.
Let's hope then that, as one of his final acts as senator, Mr. Murkowski persuades the Senate majority leader to ''convince'' other GOP senators to leave room on the energy panel for an Alaskan.
Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska's senior senator, likely will not seek a seat on the panel. He will return as chairman of the Appropriations Committee and keep his seat on the Commerce Committee, where he is in line to become chairman when his term on appropriations expires. If he were to now seek an energy committee slot, however, Senate rules would dictate he lose his commerce position -- and its all-important seniority. If he were to take an energy slot, Alaska would face the prospect in a few years of holding no Senate chairmanships.
Alaska's two long-serving senators have been noting that they, along with Rep. Don Young, are of the same vintage. A new senator, they say, is needed to begin down the long road to seniority.
That road needs to start with a seat on the energy committee.
-- Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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