In 180-Degree Turn, Murkowski Votes Against Icebreaker Funding

The Polar Star is the United States' only heavy icebreaker. In contrast, Russia has 11 such vessels. Image-USCG

The Polar Star is the United States’ only heavy icebreaker. In contrast, Russia has 11 such vessels. Image-USCG

In an odd turn of events in the nation’s capitol, Alaska’s Senator Murkowski, who has been an outspoken supporter, and has even led the fight for new icebreakers, voted against an amendment proposed by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois to add $940 million to the Defense Spending Bill to acquire an icebreaker.

Murkowski has made many a speech, advocating new icebreakers, as the U.S. falls further and further behind in that arena. But, when the rubber met the road on Wednesday, she voted the party line and voted against Durbin’s amendment.

Speaking at the Senate Appropriations committee, Sen. Durbin said as he pushed for adoption of his amendment, “The amendment includes $940 million to accelerate a Coast Guard icebreaker. We all know the reality of climate change is having an impact on national security. And the Arctic is a contested region, with China and Russia asserting their interest there. The U.S. is falling behind in its Arctic capabilities.”

It was only a month ago that Murkowski introduced legislation along with fellow Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash)to fund icebreakers in their Icebreaker Recapitalization Act. Calling it imperative from a military viewpoint she said that her efforts were a “down payment on an Arctic future.” Three weeks ago, that bill was sent to committee, but, according to govtrack.us, that bill has a 0% chance of being enacted.

It was in late April of this year that Murkowski questioned the commitment that DHS had toward funding icebreakers when she asked the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security what he would do to “step  it up” and assume the responsibilities the U.S. has in the Arctic.

In June of last year, Murkowski pressed for Arctic investment, and said during a meeting of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee as they were discussing the 2015 Homeland Security Funding Bill, that there was a critical need for icebreakers. She pressed subcommittee chairperson Senator Mary Landrieu and Landieu promised a subcommittee meeting in the fall of 2014 to discuss how the subcommittee could allocate $1 billion to purchase an icebreaker for the Coast Guard.

She said in a press release then, The rest of the world will be looking to see how America leads as an Arctic nation. And right now, they are kind of sitting back and scratching their heads, and saying what are they doing? …I appreciate the attention of the Chair and the Ranking Member to make this a priority. I don’t think we are moving fast enough. I’m a little impatient. I feel that most of us in the Senate, in the Congress for that matter, still kind of view this as “out of sight, out of mind”.

During an October inspection of the Polar Sea, Murkowski said, “In a matter of months, the United States will take the chair of the Arctic Council, and we need to be able to demonstrate leadership in the Arctic region in word and deed; having icebreakers at the ready, and investments in more on the way, are a way we can show we’re not going to allow America to fall further behind Russia or China or India.” When asked about re-furbishing an icebreaker, she pointed out that the United States needs to invest in newer icebreakers instead of repairing older ships.

Durbin’s amendment would have shifted monies from a war fund into the regular Defense Department budget to purchase the icebreaker, but that move was something the Republicans in the Senate were unwilling to do due to spending caps. Murkowski sided with her party on the vote. 

In Alaska, Chair of the Alaska Democratic party, Mike Wenstrup, said of Murkowski’s “nay” vote, “Murkowski talks a lot about getting icebreakers for the Arctic, but when the money was actually on the table she was unable to break away from her party and do right by Alaska.”