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Murkowski Travels to Afghanistan and Pakistan

Earlier this month, I traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of a Congressional delegation trip to assess where we stand in the Global War on Terror. I returned from Afghanistan feeling more confident about our potential for success there than when I left.

Mission progress was illustrated for me when I visited a bazaar in the village of Garmsir in the south. While I traveled with U.S. Marines, security for the village was provided by the local Afghan police force. By comparison, just two months ago, we would have been unable to walk freely though these village streets because of Taliban presence. The combination of American and NATO forces working closely with local Afghan law enforcement is beginning to make a difference. I was pleased with this progress but I was clearly reminded that the challenge with security and governance in Afghanistan is enormous and that the United States cannot bear the responsibility of securing Afghanistan indefinitely. The Afghan government must continue to make progress and commit to stabilizing its country while continuing to train and expand the Afghan army and security forces.

Sen. Murkowski and other members of the Congressional delegation meet with General Stanley McChrystal, Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. Pictured with Sen. Murkowski are, from left, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, General McChrystal, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho, and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. While in Afghanistan, our delegation also met with the Commander of U.S. Forces, General Stanley McChrystal, as well as with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. During an earlier stopover in Pakistan, we met with Army Chief of Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani.

I also met up with several Alaskans while in Kabul -- Michelle Stewart of Wasilla and Ted Wittenberger of Eagle River, who are pictured above. Michelle is serving with the U.S. Air Force, and Ted is a field program officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

If you'd like to see pictures from my trip, visit my website.

Addressing Climate Change Responsibly I believe that climate change is a real threat that must be addressed. However the regulation of greenhouse gases which contribute to climate change is a highly complicated matter, and the appropriate body with the power to responsibly address this is the United States Congress, not the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA, however, is moving forward with economically devastating regulations to address greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act. In Alaska, this would increase costs not only to the energy industry, but to many businesses, hospitals, schools and fish processors. It is for these reasons that this week I introduced a disapproval resolution that would block EPA's reckless regulations.

So far 35 Republican and three Democrat senators have signed on as co-sponsors of the resolution. As the EPA moves closer and closer to issuing these regulations, I continue to believe that this command-and-control approach is our worst option for reducing the emissions blamed for climate change. Click here to read my Senate floor speech on the disapproval resolution.

Health Care Update A special Senate election in Massachusetts this week to replace the late Sen. Edward Kennedy has changed the dynamic of health care legislation moving through Congress as the Democrats will no longer have a 60-vote supermajority. As you know, on Christmas Eve, the Democrats passed a $2.5 trillion health care bill by a vote of 60-39. All Republican senators voted against this legislation because it would cut Medicare by nearly half a trillion dollars, raise taxes and increase premiums for millions of Americans.

Even the President's own Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services chief actuary has said that premiums will go up under this bill for individuals, families and sole proprietors who purchase health insurance in the non-group market. In fact, Mark Foster, an independent health care consultant based in Anchorage, says health care premiums in Alaska for this group would be 12 percent higher, resulting in premium increases of approximately $1,160 for individuals and $2,950 for families.

I wrote a letter last week that was signed by 17 of my colleagues urging the Majority Leader to remove a provision that was "air-dropped" into the bill without any debate and would require small construction businesses with five or more workers to provide health insurance for their employees. Every other industry and employer group in America would be subject to an employer mandate at 50 employees or more. Singling out one industry and one that's been hardest hit by the economic recession is wrong. Seeing things like this, I and many Alaskans are left wondering what happened to the transparency and openness in government that the President promised.

While I support health care reform, I have said from the beginning that we should adopt a step-by-step approach focusing on areas both sides can agree on such as banning lifetime caps on insurance, coverage denials based on pre-existing conditions, enacting junk lawsuit reforms and allowing insurers to sell across state lines.

I've heard Alaskans loud and clear -- this bill is not a good fit for Alaska. For these reasons, and many others, I remain opposed to this legislation.

Incident Reinforces Need for Dual Escort Vessel Legislation for All Tankers Last Sunday morning, a fully laden oil tanker exiting Prince William Sound lost power and had to be towed to safety. This incident is a direct reminder that incidents still happen and that we must maintain the Prince William Sound Dual Escort Vessel Marine Safety System. Even with a double hulled tanker, as was the case in this incident, the risk of an accident would have been much greater had the escort tugs not been in the vicinity to assist the vessel. With more than 25 million gallons of oil on board, a vessel grounding in the inclement weather could have been catastrophic.

The tug escort prevention system works, and even though it is rare for a tanker to lose power, this is not the first time it has happened, and it won't be the last. We must maintain the present escort system indefinitely.

Along with Sen. Begich, I introduced legislation last May that would require all tankers transporting oil in Prince William Sound to be escorted by at least two towing vessels, as has been the practice for the past 20 years.

The current tanker safety system was authorized in the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 (OPA90) and currently applies to single hulled oil tankers only. The last single hulled tanker in the Prince William Fleet is expected to be retired from service by August 2012. The legislation would require dual escort vessels for double hulled tankers as well. I am hopeful that the Senate this year will include our provision in a Coast Guard reauthorization bill that has already passed the House.

The Census: It Counts for More than People Mandated by the Constitution, the census is conducted every 10 years, and the results count for more than just determining our nation's population. When complete, the results are used by the government to determine the amount of funding Alaska will receive for programs such as Medicaid. The results are also used to determine voting districts and how much representation each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Most of you will be receiving a form in the mail from the U.S. Census Bureau and in some cases, a census worker may visit your home. I encourage you to fill out and return this important form so that Alaska can receive its fair share of federal resources.

For more information on the census, please visit the U.S. Census website.

Coffee with the Senator While I wish I could be home more often, I do enjoy meeting with visiting Alaskans at my office in Washington. During the spring when the Senate is in session, I host a Wednesday coffee for visiting Alaskans. The next coffees will be held March 3, March 10, March 17 and March 24. If you would like attend one of my constituent coffees, please visit my website for details.

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