They’ve been both hailed as heroines and disparaged as defectors.
But as Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski sat side-by-side in an exclusive joint interview with CNN’s Dana Bash on Thursday, they steadfastly stood by their decisions to buck their own party’s recent push on health care.
The two women reflected on last week’s turbulent series of events and their votes that ultimately led to the suspenseful downfall of Republican efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s always hard not to be a member of the team. There’s lots of pressure to do that,” said Collins, a four-term senator from Maine. “But in the end, I have to do what I think is right. And that’s what I did in this case.”
Ticking off a list of the pressures senators face – “repercussion from party, a tweet from the President, backlash from your leadership” – Murkowski, a three-term senator from Alaska, argued that she and her colleagues shouldn’t have to feel “motivated or discouraged” from doing what they feel is right for their respective states.
Murkowski knows firsthand the impact of a tweet from the President. A day after she and Collins were the only two senators to oppose a procedural vote on health care last week, President Donald Trump fired off a tweet singling out Murkowski, saying she “really let the Republicans, and our country, down.”
The senator said that tweet also came a day after the President personally spoke to her over the phone. Asked if she felt intimidated by their conversations, Murkowski declined to get specific. “I will just say that the President and I had a very direct call.”
She also received a call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a person who holds enormous sway in a state like Alaska, to urge Murkowski to support the President on health care.
Zinke is now being investigated by the department’s inspector general over whether the secretary threatened Alaska’s economic development in the phone call. Responding to news of the preliminary probe, Murkowski told Bash that she did not interpret the phone call as a “threat” but that “he was merely delivering a message.”
Pressed on whether Zinke mentioned economic development in the call, Murkowski simply stated the focus was on health care. “What he mentioned was that the President was very – that the health care bill was very important to the President,” she said.
Before last week’s health care votes, Murkowski had been warning Trump that she was not going to vote by party line on the issue. Earlier last month at the White House, at a meeting between Republican senators and Trump on health care, Murkowski said she told the President in front her colleagues that she wasn’t necessarily going to back whatever Republicans ended up proposing. “I am voting for the people of Alaska,” she said.
“Lisa gave a wonderful speech that day at the White House,” Collins added, with her colleague sitting next to her. “And I remembered being so proud of you for saying directly to the President what your obligations were.”
Both women felt that one of those obligations was protecting federal funds for Planned Parenthood during the health care battle, saying too many women in their states relied on it for health care needs like cancer screenings. Collins said she felt it was “inconsistent with our Republican ideals” to advocate for people to choose their own health care providers – but not if it was Planned Parenthood.
Just three days after Murkowski and Collins were the only two Republicans to oppose a procedural vote to move on to a health care measure – resulting in Vice President Mike Pence having to make the tie-breaking vote – the two were back in the “no” column again, but this time they had company.
Sen. John McCain joined the two women to vote against what was dubbed the “skinny repeal” bill to strip away key aspects of the Affordable Care Act – essentially a last-resort option for Senate Republicans after other measures failed to advance. While very few senators were particularly thrilled about the legislation, they were hoping to at least pass it, then work with the House to improve it in a conference committee.
But it wasn’t good enough for Collins and Murkowski, and in a dramatic twist, McCain became the third Republican senator to vote no, effectively sinking the bill. They said they didn’t know for sure how he was going to vote until he walked up to them on the floor after midnight at the late-night vote.
“I so remember when both Lisa and I were talking with John McCain on the Senate floor and he pointed to both of us and he said, you two are right on this issue,” she said. “And that’s when I knew for sure.”
Murkowski said she’ll never forget a conversation the three had after the vote.
“He said people might not appreciate what has happened right now as being a positive,” she recalled. “But time will prove that having a pause, having time out for us to do better is going to be good for the country. And it was a good, good, strong John McCain message.”
Just a few days later, Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a longtime critic of Trump’s, released a scathing critique of the President in his book, arguing that his party was in “denial” and urging others to stand up to the White House.
Asked by Bash if there was a noticeable shift in the way Republicans were starting to handle Trump, Collins said that many in her party are still interested in the President’s agenda but are not so tolerant of his style.
“I don’t think that the caucus is ignoring the President,” Collins said. “But there may be some ignoring of his rhetoric, which, at times, is over the top.”
Murkowski agreed, saying that when the rhetoric from the Oval Office “is not constructive to governing,” it’s “important to speak up.”
“And I think you are starting to see a little bit of that,” she added. “I think we’re all still getting to know this new administration and how this President operates.”