Ready to deal this time? Alaska’s Murkowski is in the health-care spotlight. Again. – Washington Post

 In U.S.
Lisa Murkowski walked briskly down a cavernous hallway on the first floor of the Capitol, awash in a small sea of reporters. Suddenly she paused, seemingly overcome by the pressure of the moment.

“You guys — hold,” the Republican senator from Alaska said curtly. “Give me breathing room, please. It gets a little intense. I know you guys don’t feel it, but it’s like, whoa.”

Another effort to replace the Affordable Care Act is underway, and in Washington this year, that means one thing: Murkowski is at the center of it all — under the glare of the national spotlight and squarely on the minds of White House officials and Senate Republican leaders who are strenuously seeking her support.

Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said Wednesday that it is McConnell’s “intention” to consider a repeal-and-replace bill from Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) “on the floor next week,” marking his firmest commitment yet to the plan.

President Trump discusses health care with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), left, and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) during a meeting at the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Hours later, President Trump said the bill had a “very good chance” of passing. “We’re at 47 or 48 already senators, and a lot of others are looking at it positively,” said the president.

Murkowski said Wednesday that she was not yet ready to support the measure. After leaving a meeting with Cassidy, Graham and fellow Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan (R), Murkowski said she still needed to review more information on how it would affect her state.

“I have asked for nothing except the data that we’re going to need to better understand the impact to a high-cost, low-density state like Alaska,” Murkowski said. She said she was seeking data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Department of Health and Human Services, “working with our state’s Medicaid directors.”

Murkowski’s status — she is one of at least four Republicans who remain unsure whether to support legislation that leaders hope to pass by the end of the month — has pushed her, again, to the middle of the action this week. But there is another reason the public’s attention tends to lock onto this warm yet resolute and sometimes brusque senator: No one has any idea what she will do.

Like the state she represents, Murkowski projects an independent streak. She regularly breaks with her party — yet she is also willing to play ball. Alaska is mysterious and complicated. So is its senior senator.

“The problem last time was process and substance,” Murkowski said Tuesday after her pause in the Capitol, explaining why she might be willing to support the current measure despite voting against the last one in July. “Nobody knew what we were really . . . voting on.”

Republicans, who hold 52 seats in the Senate, are already contemplating a scenario in which they are unable to persuade Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to back their effort. That leaves them with no defections to spare even with Vice President Pence available to cast a tiebreaking vote on a bill that Democrats uniformly oppose.

Senate Republicans are trying to revive the momentum to overhaul the Affordable Care Act with the Cassidy-Graham proposal. Here’s a rundown of the plan, and the rush to pass it. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

And it makes Murkowski the GOP’s biggest remaining challenge, Republicans familiar with the situation said this week.

The senator from Alaska has offered few clues as to where she stands in the negotiations. She met at length this week in McConnell’s office near the Senate chamber, and she has remained in close contact with those working with Cassidy, one of the bill’s chief sponsors, as she seeks to better understand what the bill means for Alaska. It remains unclear what would get her to “yes” or what leaders are offering her.

What is clear is that she is asking for something, and it has become a Capitol Hill parlor game to guess what it is and whether it will work without prompting an avalanche of similar demands from other senators.

“If it can be shown that Alaska is not going to be disadvantaged, you gain additional flexibility,” Murkowski said. “Then I can go back to Alaskans, and I can say, ‘Okay, let’s walk through this together.’”

Comparing it to the July effort, she added: “That’s where it could be different.”

Murkowski is the daughter of Frank Murkowski, a fixture in Alaska politics for three decades who appointed her to his Senate seat in 2002, when he became governor. Since that time, she has forged her own identity as a centrist Republican and the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. But she has also followed a succession of politicians, including her father and the late Ted Stevens, known for engaging in political horse-trading to bring resources home to Alaska.

She has also demonstrated a regular willingness to buck her party. In 2010, she defied the odds when she lost the Republican primary to a tea party challenger only to come back, with little institutional support, and win the general election as a write-in candidate.

The current moment looks different, giving President Trump and McConnell a second chance to keep Murkowski in the fold after their heavy-handed efforts to sway her in July appeared to backfire.

In the lead-up to the final repeal vote in July, Trump took to Twitter to call out Murkowski for not being more supportive. He also placed a call that she described as unpleasant and dispatched Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke to make what some interpreted as a threat that federal resources for Alaska could be at risk if she voted no.

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