Julia O'Malley

Julia O'Malley writes a general interest column about life and politics in Anchorage and around Alaska. She grew up in Anchorage and has worked at the ADN on and off as a columnist and reporter since 1996. She came back full time as a reporter in 2005.

As a reporter, she covered the court system and wrote extensively about life in Anchorage, including big changes in the city's ethnic and minority communities.

In 2008, she won the Scripps-Howard Foundation's Ernie Pyle award for the best human-interest writing in America. She has also written for the Oregonian, the Juneau Empire and the Anchorage Press.

E-mail her at jomalley@adn.com.

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If Murkowski is moderate, her votes should be too

Over the weekend, Sen. Lisa Murkowski learned the hard way not to get between women and birth control.

Back from Washington, D.C., for the start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, the senator kept running into female voters who wrote in her name in the last election -- moderate women who did not always vote Democrat or Republican. These women were coming unglued.

The reason: Murkowski's support for a measure that would have allowed not just religious employers, but any employer, to opt out of providing birth control or other health insurance coverage required by the 2010 health-care law for moral reasons.

I called her office Friday looking for an interview but didn't expect to get one. Then an email arrived from her account on Saturday, agreeing to meet me Sunday night at the Millennium Hotel.

We talked for 45 minutes. What Murkowski told me I already suspected. She's a moderate. She supports abortion rights and contraception coverage. She also doesn't line up completely with the Catholic Church when it comes to birth control. She regretted her recent vote.

"I have never had a vote I've taken where I have felt that I let down more people that believed in me," she said.

She'd meant to make a statement about religious freedom, she said, but voters read it as a vote against contraception coverage for women. The measure was so broad, it's hard not to read it that way. I suspect Murkowski saw that, but for reasons she didn't share with me, voted for it anyway.

In case you haven't followed this latest battle in the culture wars, the vote came last week during a heated debate about the new health care law's requirement that employers offer insurance that covers birth control. At first, only churches -- not religiously affiliated employers like Catholic charities or hospitals -- were exempt from the rule. Republicans, including Murkowski, along with Catholic and other religious groups, objected, saying the rule trampled on religious liberties.

Because of their objections, the Obama administration changed the rule to allow religiously affiliated organizations to exclude birth control from their plans. In those cases, insurance companies, instead of employers, would offer the coverage directly to women without charging their employers.

Murkowski was among the Republicans who were vocal about supporting religious organizations' position before the administration's compromise was announced. Murkowski sponsored legislation to reverse parts of the health care measure and aligned herself with the church position in a letter to the Catholic Anchor newspaper published Feb. 23.

"Unfortunately, the Obama administration unilaterally determined that religious hospitals, charities and schools will be required to go against their deeply-held -- and constitutionally-protected -- beliefs when offering health care services to current employees," Murkowski wrote.

After the compromise announcement, she didn't speak publicly about her position. But in our interview, it was clear that she felt the compromise did not go far enough to protect large religious-affiliated institutions.

But when I talked to Murkowski, she said she voted for the Blunt Amendment (proposed by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt), to send a message that the health care law needed a stronger clause for religious conscience. It was supposed to be a vote for religious freedom, she said, but to female voters back home it looked like a vote against contraception. The language of the amendment was "overbroad," she said.

"If you had it to do over again, having had the weekend that you had with women being upset about the vote, do you think you would have voted the same?" I asked.

"No," she said.

Murkowski said she believes contraception should be covered and affordable, except when it comes to churches and religiously affiliated organizations, like some universities and hospitals. She sponsored a contraception coverage bill as a state legislator in 2002. That bill exempted "religious employers." She said her position hasn't changed.

"I have always said if you don't like abortion the best way to deal with it is to not have unwanted pregnancies in the first place," she said. "How do you do that? It's through contraception."

I pointed out that her support for birth control conflicts with the Catholic mandate against it.

"You know, I don't adhere to all of the tenets of my faith. I'm a Republican, I don't adhere to all of the principles that come out of my party," she said. "I'm also not hesitant to question when I think that my church, my religion, is not current."

I have always thought of Murkowski as pro-choice. But I sat through numerous debates at election time where it seemed hard for her take a position. Sunday, she brought up the topic.

"I have taken the position that there are instances where abortion should be made available. They should be made safe and legal," she said.

That said, she didn't think taxpayer dollars should pay for them.

She called the Blunt Amendment a "messaging amendment" that "both sides know is not going to pass."

Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid saw the public debate shifting away from religious freedom, which would have been a winning issue for Republicans, she said. Reid recognized contraceptive rights as a winning issue for Democrats and pushed for a vote.

"The wind had shifted, and Republicans didn't have enough sense to get off of it," she said.

I asked if during her weekend in Anchorage, she'd thought at all about Rush Limbaugh, who recently said a lot of unsavory things about a Georgetown University student testifying for birth control coverage, including that she was expecting taxpayers to pay for her to have sex.

"I think women when they hear ... mouthpieces like that say things like that they get concerned and they look to policymakers," she said. "That's where I feel like I have let these women down is that I have not helped to give these women the assurance they need that their health care rights are protected."

We were starting to wrap up our conversation when she showed me a gold bracelet made to look like the plastic ones her campaign gave out to remind people how to spell her name as a write-in candidate.

"It's a reminder of how I got (to the Senate)," she said. "I didn't get there through the normal route. I got there because Alaskans took a little bit of risk on me."

What she meant was she got there with the votes of people who weren't necessarily Republicans. She felt responsible, she said, "to do right by all of them."

But will she do right? Regrets are one thing, but real votes in the Senate are another. If she's a moderate, she should vote like one. Otherwise, all her weekends in Alaska will end up like this last one: full of apologies.

An earlier version of this column referred to Murkowski as a "leading voice" against the administration's compromise on the contraception coverage. The column referenced a letter published in the Catholic Anchor on Feb 23. The letter in the Anchor was submitted before the compromise was announced and published afterward. Though she does not support it, Murkowski did not make a public statement about the compromise.

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