Donald Trump threatens to protect the environment if Alaska senators don’t back health care bill

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke cos-playing next to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke cos-playing next to Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
Image: Twitter/Ryan Zinke
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Today marks the final chance for Republicans to enact a new US health care law that would cut coverage and reduce taxes for the wealthy. To do so, party leaders need to win over key holdouts like Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, and they are playing hardball.

Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, called Murkowski and her fellow Alaska senator Dan Sullivan yesterday to warn them that opposing the bill would mean punishment for Alaskans, according to Alaska Dispatch News. He promised to hold back development projects and efforts to exploit Alaska’s natural resources, including fossil fuel deposits, on the vast expanse of federal land in the far northwestern state.

Murkowski is one of a handful of Republicans who have voted against proposed health care overhauls because they cut Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor that plays an important role in back-stopping the health care system in rural Alaska. Now, Trump’s team wants her to choose between health care and jobs.

“I fear that the strong economic growth, pro-energy, pro-mining, pro-jobs, and personnel from Alaska who are part of those policies are going to stop,” Sullivan 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.”

Those policies include plans to build a road through a wildlife refuge, expand oil drilling in protected lands, and appoint Alaskans to federal government positions where they can be influential in pushing for more access to federal lands.

The irony is that Zinke and Trump have long called for action to exploit federal land that the Obama administration, which tended to prioritized environmental protection, denied. Now, Zinke is threatening that he will protect the environment if Murkowski doesn’t support a health care bill. The importance of oil to Alaska’s economy, especially as the petroleum market struggles with low prices, means Murkowski is likely paying attention.

Still, like many Trump team propositions, it’s hard not to see this as a bluff. Will one wayward health care vote have this White House lining up with the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters when it comes to Alaska’s federal lands?

Don’t count on it.