Why all eyes are on Murkowski in Supreme Court confirmation battle

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media)

This week, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he’s retiring. Now, the future direction of the U.S. Supreme Court could rest on the shoulders of Sen. Lisa Murkowski and her colleague from Maine, Republican Sen. Susan Collins. Alaska Public Media’s Washington Correspondent, Liz Ruskin spoke with Lori Townsend to explain why.

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TOWNSEND: Liz, why are all eyes on Murkowski right now?

RUSKIN:  Basically, you’ve got a closely divided Senate, and if the Democrats unite to oppose a nominee, the Republicans won’t be able to lose a single vote and still win that coinfirmation. Murkowski is, on many issues, the swing vote. She usually votes with the Republicans, but sometimes, on certain issues, she votes with the Democrats. One of those issues is abortion. President Trump has promised that whoever he nominates will oppose Roe v. Wade. The two Republicans who typically vote for abortion rights are Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. So, all eyes on them.

TOWSEND: Well, there is some legislative track record here. Murkowski and Collins both showed they’re willing to buck their party when they voted against the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year.

RUSKIN: Right. They and John McCain crossed the aisle to sink that repeal effort. And it’s interesting because the other big vote last year, after the so-called “skinny repeal,” was the tax bill. And Republican leadership in the Senate pretty much made it impossible for Murkowski to defect on that bill by including ANWR was in it; opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling. It’s something she’s wanted forever. So some of the speculation I’m hearing now is, will Murkowski get something big to encourage her vote for the next justice, and what might that be? This is the power of the swing vote. It can be a very  powerful position. It was for Justice Kennedy, and Senator Murkowski is in that same swing position in the Senate.

TOWNSEND: So, Liz. What is Sen. Murkowski saying about that?

She sent out a statement last night saying she’d “scutinize” the nominee’s qualifications and cast an “independent vote.” She used that word, “independent vote.” It seemed like the message was Republicans shouldn’t take her vote for granted. But I should also point out: Murkowski voted last year for Justice Gorsuch last year. I can only find two justices she voted against: Kagan and Sotomayor. And they were appointed by a Democratic president.

TOWSNEND: Well, that is interesting to examine that record. So for President Trump’s next nominee, does it really come down to Murkowski and Collins?

Not necessarily, because it’s not clear that all the Democrats will oppose the nominee. We’ve got several that are up for reelection this year in red states, states that Trump won heavily. Three Democrats last year voted for Justice Gorsuch. There’s plenty of possibility of Democrats who might vote with the Republicans and confirm President Trumps’ next nominee.


CORRECTION: In the original version of this exchange, and on air, we stated that Sen. Murkowski voted on the nominations of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. It was Sen. Frank Murkowski who cast those votes.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Liz here.

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