Stevens gone, Murkowski takes his place in sought-after spot

WASHINGTON — Following in the footsteps of Alaska's former Sen. Ted Stevens, Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday won a seat on the U.S. Senate's powerful Appropriations Committee.

Murkowski, a Republican, will step into the slot long held by Stevens, who lost his November bid for re-election after his conviction in federal court for lying on his financial disclosure forms.

"It's going to be a lot of work, most definitely a lot of work," Murkowski said. "But I think it gives me an ability to fill in so many of those areas where Alaska needs to have a voice at the table. The needs in Alaska are very tangible, and we've got a lot of work that we need to do, so having a seat on this committee is a very important win for the state of Alaska."

To accept the post, Murkowski had to give up her membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Murkowski will remain the top Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She also keeps her assignments to the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as well as the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Murkowski said that until Stevens' departure, she never considered a spot on the committee. They had always worked well at "covering all bases," Murkowski said, with her on the energy panel and Stevens as an appropriator. But with Stevens gone, she pressed Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to assign her to Appropriations. Murkowski said that while she made it widely known she was interested in a seat on Appropriations, when it came time to lobby for a spot, she went straight to McConnell to ask for one of the Republican openings.

Despite the rhetoric about earmarking on the campaign trail — including that of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as she ran for vice president — the Appropriations committee remains one of the most sought-after seats in the Senate.

Its members have a powerful role in shaping how the federal budget is spent and currently are working on an $825 billion economic stimulus package. Appropriators also have the potential to steer millions of dollars to their home states by determining national spending priorities.

Stevens — who served as chairman of the committee and for many years oversaw much of the nation's defense spending — used the post to steer billions of federal dollars to Alaska.

In many ways, Alaska grew dependent on federal money during Stevens' tenure, said Bruce Cain, a political science professor who heads up the University of California Washington Center. Murkowski's assignment to the Appropriations committee is unlikely to do anything to change that.

"It sounds to me like they're trying to keep the Alaska pipeline going — in a different sense," Cain said. "They've got to find somebody to replace Stevens."

Murkowski said she also recognizes that times have changed when it comes to the kind of earmarked spending Stevens championed. Murkowski said that even as she advocated for Alaska, she also would work to ensure "there is full accountability and transparency in the appropriations process."

As for speculation that the Appropriations post will help Murkowski keep her seat in the 2010 elections and fend off challengers from both parties, she said it would help only from the standpoint that "Alaskans clearly recognize the value of having a member of our delegation on the Appropriations committee."

"But just being honest with the workload, I think we realize (that Appropriations) is going to take a lot more time, my time and my staff's time," she said. "And when you're running (for re-election), that's what you're also looking for, is more time."

Sen. Mark Begich, the Democrat who defeated Stevens, also has indicated he'd like a seat on Appropriations down the road. New senators rarely get a post on a coveted committee such as Appropriations.

It's not clear if Murkowski's assignment will keep Begich from the committee in the future, since Democrats and Republicans decide their own committee assignments. Both Republicans and Democrats have rules prohibiting senators from the same state and of the same party from serving on the same committee. Even though Murkowski and Begich are of different parties, it would be unusual for senators from the same state to be together on such a powerful and sought-after committee as Appropriations.