The ACA vs ANWR: Murkowski’s (politically) not-so-tough choice

The Senate Republicans’ controversial tax “reform” bill seemed to suffer another setback this week when leadership announced that to pay for their tax cuts they’d need to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate.

It’s a move that–like every failed GOP-backed effort to undo the ACA–would likely send the country’s individual insurance marketplaces into disarray with an estimated 13 million people exiting the market, driving premiums up for the remaining customers by an average 10 percent (because healthy, younger people will be the most likely to not buy insurance).

The move launched plenty of punditry about how it could doom the already-controversial tax plan, assuming the moderate Republicans who helped defeat the many efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act should presumably feel the same way now.

But opponents of the legislation will have to look elsewhere than Alaska’s Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

That’s because just as GOP leadership was announcing plans to repeal the key provision of Obamacare, Murkowski was busy in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee approving a tax bill amendment to open part of the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve to drilling.

Murkowski remains undecided on the bill, and has said the tax reform is “complicated enough” without injecting the issue of health care, but if both the individual mandate repeal and the ANWR provisions make it to the finish line—which isn’t guaranteed—Murkowski will face a choice between the critical, but least-popular part of a health care system she’s fought to defend and the biggest prize an Alaska politician can bring home.

Though Alaskans aren’t as nearly unified on ANWR as its leaders would like the Lower 48 to think, drilling in the 1002 area of ANWR has come to be a symbol of the fight between Alaska and the federal government, a top prize for Alaska’s Republicans and moderate Democrats alike. A vote against the Senate’s tax bill—no matter its implications on health care or the deeply unpopular provisions of the tax bill that favor big corporations and the wealthy—would be seen as a vote against opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, a move that could resonate well into the senator’s future.

The Senate GOP has painted Murkowski, long a thorn in the side of efforts to undo Obamacare, into a corner.

In the famous words of former Sen. Ted Stevens, “To hell with politics, do what’s right for Alaska.”

Still, repealing the individual mandate won’t come without impacts for Alaskans. The changes to the individual mandate could increase the annual premiums for families in Alaska by as much as $2,900 according to analysis by the Center for American Progress, which attempted to localize the impacts from the Congressional Budget Office to a state-by-state analysis released today.

The benefits to Alaska of opening lease sales in the 1002 region of ANWR are expected to net Alaska about $1.1 billion over the next decade, but Alaska’s politicians are over the moon about the potential actual development will bring to Alaska’s future.

The so-called Polar Payoff, Kodiak Kickback or Juneau Jackpot–the many names for the $1 billion included in the Senate’s July repeal targeted at Alaska–didn’t sway Murkowski, but the opportunity to open ANWR very likely will.

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