How Alaska’s congressional delegation voted on the same-sex marriage and railroad bills, and why

U.S. Capitol dome
The U.S. Capitol, viewed from the east side. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

Last week was busy in Congress, with Alaska’s congressional delegation splitting and uniting in surprising ways.

Alaska Public Media Washington Correspondent Liz Ruskin spoke about it to Alaska News Nightly host Casey Grove.

Listen:

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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Casey Grove: Liz, one of the big votes in the Senate this week was to protect same-sex marriage, and both Alaska senators voted for it, but for very different reasons. Can you explain?

Liz Ruskin: First of all, lawmakers began pursuing this bill in earnest this summer, when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, taking away the federal right to an abortion. Justice Clarence Thomas said maybe the case guaranteeing same-sex marriage should be reconsidered. So this bill would say that states have to accept as valid marriage licenses issued in other states, even if they’re for same-sex couples.

So, as expected, Sen. Lisa Murkowski voted for it. She’s been an advocate of marriage equality for quite a few years now. But Sen. Dan Sullivan also voted for it and that was something of a surprise.

CG: Did you ask him about it?

LR: I tried to. He doesn’t usually stop in the hallways to talk to reporters, and he just slipped right past me. My attempt to get him on the phone didn’t work either. But, his office issued a statement, and it was really interesting, because he made it clear that protecting same-sex marriage was not his goal. Instead, his statement says his support was because the bill, for the first time, puts in federal law that churches and religious non-profits aren’t required  to provide good or services to conduct or celebrate a same-sex marriage. In his view, and this is from Sullivan’s statement, the bill the senate passed “is much more about promoting and expanding religious liberty protections than same-sex marriage.”

CG: So it sounds like Sen. Sullivan supports the bill because it gives churches the right not to respect same-sex marriages. 

LR: That’s right. He says he believes questions about who can marry should be left to the states to decide. 

CG: But he voted for the bill, which now goes to the House for passage. Do you know how Rep. Mary Peltola will vote? 

LR: I haven’t seen a statement from her specifically on the bill, but equal rights for LGBTQ Alaskans – that’s something she campaigned on.

CG: And speaking of Congresswoman Peltola, she kind of went against the flow this week on the bill to impose a labor contract on railroad workers.

LR: Right. She voted against the bill, which Congress passed to avoid a very costly strike. I talked to her right after the vote and she said she couldn’t support a bill that didn’t have adequate sick leave for railroad workers. Here’s what she said.

Rep. Peltola: It just seems like a human right, a quality of life issue, to be able to see a doctor, to be able to take a sick day and know that you’re not going to lose your job or be severely penalized.

LR: She said some rail workers have dangerous jobs and need to be at the top of their game.  And Casey, she was holding her box of Thera-flu there in the halls of Congress.

CG: Because she’s sick?

LR: Well, she says she, folks in her campaign and her family got super sick, like, incapacitated, on Nov. 9, the day after the election. With some kind of flu-like illness. Now, she’s just dealing with some lesser symptoms. And no, she says she does not need a sick day at this point.

CG: That railroad bill did pass both chambers. And we heard members of both parties talk about how important it was to the national economy to avoid a strike. A lot of Democrats probably wanted to take the pro Union side, but they didn’t. Is Peltola going to pay a price for defying party leaders on this?

LR: I asked her that. She said there was “some disappointment expressed” to her, but that also, leadership understands that a member has to do what she feels is right. It  might have been different if it were a close vote and they really needed her. Peltola said it was something of a protest vote for her.

CG: How did the senators vote on that railroad strike bill?

LR: Sen. Murkowski voted for it. She said a strike would just be too damaging, but she said she empathized with the workers need for sick leave. Sen. Sullivan voted against it.. he said the Senate just didn’t have time to consider it. Here’s part of what he said on the Senate floor.

Sen. Sullivan: Less than 36 hours ago we were asked to decide on issues that are complicated. That are important. Without necessary deliberations. Without congressional hearings to gain knowledge and expertise required to make informed decisions.” :20

CG: So on that bill, we’ve got Peltola and Sullivan voting no, for different reasons.

By the way, Liz, I understand that when Peltola first went to D.C. to be sworn in, in September, there was a ton of national interest in her. I believe her office said they were fielding like more than 100 media requests a day. Is she still in big demand?

LR: Sure seems like it. This week she was on Meet The Press Now, on NBC’s streaming channel, to talk about the railroad bill, and then she was on CNN, kind of representing the new face of the House Democrats. Her spokesman, Josh Wilson, says the invitations to do the national shows aren’t piling up like they were, but they’re still getting more requests than they can accommodate.  

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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