The willingness of Alaska’s U.S. senators to raise issues of importance to Alaskans was on full display Thursday afternoon during a floor session of the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.
It began at about 3:45 p.m. Thursday when Sen. Lisa Murkowski rose to ask unanimous consent for the Alaska Tourism Recovery Act, the legislation that she had introduced in March with Sen. Dan Sullivan to obtain a waiver to the federal law that requires foreign-flagged passenger vessels to visit a foreign port when transporting passengers between U.S. ports. With Canada having closed its ports to large passenger vessels through the end of February because of COVID-19 concerns, the PVSA effectively prevents large ship cruising to Alaska during 2021, even if cruise lines get a green light to start sailing from U.S. ports this year.
Murkowski, and then Sullivan, highlighted the economic difficulties resulting from the loss of the 2020 cruise season in Alaska, followed now by the already severely diminished potential for any large cruise ship traffic here in 2021.
Noting that a lot of different opinions about the PVSA and the Jones Act (which is specific to cargo) exist, Murkowski stressed that the proposed legislation is focused on one thing.
“What I’m trying to offer, along with Sen. Sullivan, is a temporary fix that will allow cruise ships to travel between Washington state and Alaska,” Murkowski said, as quoted in the C-Span transcript of the Senate floor session. “I’m not trying to save the cruise companies, I’m trying to save the communities that are so dependent on the (cruise ships) that bring these ... passengers up for them.”
Murkowski said she had worked with Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, to address issues they had with the bill, describing the “simple, commonsense” changes that had been made as a result.
For his part, Blumenthal said that Murkowski and Sullivan had “ably represented the plight of the citizens of Alaska.
“I’m sympathetic to the economic and humanitarian situation that prompts this effort,” said Blumenthal, thanking Murkowski and Sullivan for working through to a negotiated compromise in a way that “really is a win-win for everyone.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was not on board, however. Voicing strong opposition to the PVSA and Jones Act in general, Lee focused on the PVSA as a law that serves “no one except for the foreign interests.”
“Shame on us if we don’t fix that,” Lee said. “Look, I remain hopeful, optimistic and ever willing to negotiate this. I’ve got lots of amendments to offer up. In deference to my colleagues from Alaska, I’m going to hold off on counter proposing those right now, but I’m filing them and they’re ready to go. I hope we can negotiate our way through this. If we can’t, shame on us. The PVSA is bad. It’s bad news. We need to let it go. For these reasons, Madam President, I object.”
A few minutes later, Sullivan acknowledged that Blumenthal and Lee have issues that they’re passionate about, and that he, Sullivan, appreciates that.
“As they know, what we’re trying to do here, Sen. Murkowski and I, is not tackle those issues so much as tackle the issue directly before Alaskans, and that’s how to salvage a summer tourism season,” Sullivan said.
He said he appreciated Blumenthal and Lee’s commitment to work through the issues, but the “clock is ticking.”
“To our fellow Alaskans, my message is: ‘Don’t give up,’” Sullivan continued. “Despite what you’ve seen, there’s actually been momentum and movement, and I’m confident we can get there.”
Murkowski concluded, noting Wednesday’s new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control, that “it’s been a lot of pieces to knit together.
“It hasn’t been particularly pretty or easy, but I’d like to think that the folks in Southeastern Alaska and throughout the state will see benefits of this in the weeks and months ahead,” Murkowski said.
The entire exchange highlighted the complexity of moving legislation through Congress, even something as tightly focused as the proposed Alaska Tourism Recovery Act. Sometimes we can’t imagine the patience required to shepherd a bill through, but Murkowski and Sullivan, at least from the Senate floor, made clear that they’re capable of maintaining decorum while acknowledging their colleagues issues and presenting a very strong case on behalf of their constituents.
It’s a tough job. On Thursday, Murkowski and Sullivan showed once again that they’re up to the challenge. We wish them success in this endeavor.