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Alaska's senators threatened with policy retribution by White House official over health care vote

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) arrives for a Senate health care vote on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

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.

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.

"What the secretary shared with me was that the president was not pleased," she told reporters Thursday. "I think it's very clear based on my conversation with the secretary that he was just sharing the concern that the president had expressed to him to pass on to me."

Sullivan described his exchange with Zinke as a "troubling message" that raised the prospect of unfavorable decisions on federal policy for Alaska. The state is a major oil producer and the federal government is its largest landowner, with 60 percent of the total area.

"The message was pretty clear," Sullivan, who supported the Republican repeal effort, told the Alaska Dispatch News. "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."

A White House spokeswoman referred inquiries to the Interior Department which didn't respond to a request for comment. A House Democrat said he would request an investigation of the call.

Asked about Sullivan's concern that there would repercussions for Alaska, Murkowski said: "I certainly hope that those in the administration will continue to work with all of us, all of the Alaska delegation, on priorities that are not only important to Alaska, they are important to the country."

Murkowski chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and abruptly delayed committee votes scheduled for Thursday on several Interior Department nominations. She said the vote was canceled because of a "hiccup" with one of the nominees.

Without the support of Murkowski and Maine Sen. Susan Collins, 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.

Murkowski said she had "a difficult conversation" with Trump himself on Tuesday before the vote.

After she cast her no vote, Trump tweeted, "Senator @lisamurkowski of the Great State of Alaska really let the Republicans, and our country, down yesterday. Too bad!"

Critics said it was one thing to criticize Murkowski but another to link the health-care vote to home-state issues she cares about. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said he planned to request a formal investigation of the matter on Thursday, calling it "something we'd see from the Kremlin."

"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."

"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."

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