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GOP colleagues defend Murkowski after Trump broadside

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has brushed off the idea that her vote could cost her with the GOP, either in elections or within the Senate itself. | M. Scott Mahaskey/POLITICO

Lisa Murkowski is facing fresh political fallout for opposing confirmation of President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, as Republicans fret about her future in the GOP and whether Trump’s attacks on the Alaska senator will alienate her on future votes on his nominees.

Her Senate GOP colleagues are defending her, pushing back against Trump’s vow to make her pay a political price for opposing Kavanaugh. But Murkowski could be censured by her state party over her vote, and Republicans are growing uneasy with her standing in today’s GOP. She voted against the Obamacare repeal and the Kavanaugh confirmation, putting her on the wrong side of the president on two critical votes over the past two years.

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Murkowski isn’t up for reelection until 2022, having won reelection alongside Trump in 2016. But Republicans say the prickly Alaska senator doesn’t take kindly to Trump’s assertion that Murkowski will “never recover” from her “no” vote and that it might alienate the Alaska moderate on critical votes in a narrowly divided Senate.

“If I was going to pick people to be the least persuaded in the direction you want them to go by any kind of intimidation, I’d put Lisa and Susan Collins on the list. I don’t think it serves the purpose,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “Generally, she is for what we want to do … anything that sounds the least bit threatening would not rein Lisa Murkowski in.”

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said the president and the Republican Party should “enjoy the win” and move on because there’s always another big vote around the corner. Murkowski’s vote may be needed soon on confirming a new attorney general, for example, or other Cabinet-level nominees in the lame duck or next year.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who is close to Trump, suggested that the president may regret his spontaneous phone call to The Washington Post on Saturday in which he called Murkowski’s vote “really unacceptable.”

“I don’t think that was a good thing to do. Murkowski’s a good senator. She does what she believes,” Hatch said. “I think he has backed off now. I think he … realizes he probably shouldn’t have done that.”

Trump’s relationship with Murkowski is already frayed. In a phone call last summer, Trump pushed her to support the GOP’s attempts to repeal Obamacare, though she ultimately voted no and people working on the bill said Trump’s lobbying was not helpful. The president took out most of his outrage on Sen. John McCain, who was viewed by many as the deciding vote.

But now Murkowski is the only Republican to have opposed two of Trump’s signature initiatives.

“Sometimes people who go against the grain are rewarded, sometimes not,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). “Some Republicans may not be happy with voting to keep Obamacare and against Kavanaugh. But I don’t know, she’s been a resilient politician, even winning a write-in.”

Indeed, Murkowski’s 2010 general election win after losing her primary is something of legend, solidifying her independent streak and demonstrating that she relies less on the GOP party infrastructure than perhaps any other senator.

Sen. Susan Collins

Murkowski brushed off the idea that her vote could cost her with the GOP, either in elections or within the Senate itself.

“I took the vote that I took, and I’m good with it. I’m moving forward. I think we all need to be. I’m not going to dwell on the what-ifs,” she said Tuesday evening. “That’s what we have to do.”

But in the longer term, Murkowski’s own political future could be endangered by her vote, particularly if Trump wins reelection in 2020. The conservative Club for Growth dispatched a staffer to Alaska over the weekend to begin scouting a challenger, and a spokeswoman said, “It’s clear that voters weren’t happy about what Murkowski did.”

And the Alaska GOP is weighing whether to issue a statement condemning Murkowski’s vote, withdraw its support for her or even find challengers to her reelection campaign, according to The Associated Press. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said of any retribution: “I’ll fight it fully.”

And Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said he would fight any effort to strip her of her chairmanship. Party leaders said Murkowski was unlikely to face fallout within the caucus for her vote; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Sunday that Murkowski still is in “good standing” in the Senate GOP.

“It was just a very personal decision Sen. Murkowski made and she’s not going to be influenced by what anybody else has to say about it. And that was her best judgment she had to make,” said Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas).

He said Murkowski’s vote had not affected their relationship. On Tuesday evening on the Senate floor, Murkowski chatted amiably with Cornyn and Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who missed Saturday’s confirmation vote for his daughter’s wedding, leading Murkowski to vote “present” to maintain a two-vote margin for Kavanaugh.

Interactions like those suggest most Republicans are willing to move on from the episode. And Murkowski said Monday she will oppose a Democratic effort to roll back access to Trump’s new cheap insurance plans, a critical vote for her to cast for the GOP side in the 51-49 Senate.

But some in the GOP worry that she’s already a lame duck no matter what she does the next four years.

“In a state that Trump carried by [14] points, I think she’s committed political suicide,” said one Republican senator. “I just feel sorry for her. It just doesn’t make sense.”

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