Ms. Independence: Murkowski Steps Outside the Party Lines

Joe Miller: Rule of Law Not Being
WATCH Joe Miller: Rule of Law 'Not Being Followed'

Republican leaders in Washington really had no choice but to back Joe Miller, the failed Alaska Republican Senate candidate. But it's a decision that could lead to a lot of headaches now that Sen. Lisa Murkowski is retaking her seat as an Independent Republican.

No longer beholden to the party, her first act of the new Senate term was to reject the Republican Party line.

Republicans in Washington had been touting a self-imposed moratorium on "earmarks" – pet spending projects -- as a way to distinguish themselves from Democrats. Republicans would be the party of limited spending and smaller government.

Even longtime earmarkers like the Republican Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell, changed course to support the ban.

But Murkowski issued a blistering statement Tuesday night making clear she would not be on board. Banning earmarks, she argued, is akin to giving the reins of government to bureaucrats.

"The notion that Congress would abdicate its constitutional duty and turn federal spending over to government bureaucrats is wrong and goes against the Constitution's mandate that says the power of the purse lies with the legislative branch of government," she said.

Other Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., grumbled about the moratorium and promised to support it only until their state needed a special project.

But Murkowski declared war on the moratorium.

"We recognize that we need to stop out-of-control spending, but let's make sure that the action we take actually translates into spending and deficit reduction rather than just messaging," said Murkowski. She said she'll fight for Alaska's "fair share" of its appropriations dollars and called the moratorium a "shell game that moves the money and the decision-making responsibility from Congress to the bureaucracy."

She also made a point of her agreement on the subject of earmarks with the other Alaska senator, Democrat Mark Begich.

Murkowski originally got her Senate seat in the easiest possible way – she was appointed to take over when her father ran for governor. But she won reelection in 2004 by a narrow margin and now has won a second time in the most difficult possible way - as a write-in candidate – after she lost the Republican primary.

Murkowski Stakes Out Her Independence

Murkowski was not the most loyal Republican even when she was a Republican. She voted with the party about 84 percent of the time in 2010, which was a good part of the reason she was challenged from the right by Joe Miller.

There is no doubt she will still vote most of the time as a Republican.

But as the new and clearly most popular politician in the state – apologies to Sarah Palin, who campaigned hard for Miller and against Murkowski – her independence is already showing.

Other moderate Republicans, like Sen. Lindsey Graham, supported the moratorium, but with caveats.

Murkowski now joins two other Independents in the Senate – Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Both help Democrats ensure their majority.

But Lieberman was essentially kicked out of the Democratic Party in 2006 when he, like Murkowski, lost a primary.

Since then he opposed Democrats on how to address the war in Iraq in 2007, and in 2008 he endorsed and campaigned with Republican Sen. John McCain for president. Lieberman also single-handedly rejected proposals for a public health insurance option in 2009, denying liberals a key policy goal.

But Democrats kept Lieberman in their caucus because he pads their majority and votes with them on most issues.

"Joe Lieberman is not some right-wing nutcase," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2008 on CNN. "Joe Lieberman is one of the most progressive people ever to come from the state of Connecticut."

Lieberman has implied that more Senators would vote their minds if they weren't constricted by the party faithful.

"There's a hard core of partisan, passionate, hardcore Republicans," Lieberman said. "There's a hard core of partisan Democrats on the other side. And in between is the larger group, which is people who really want to see the right thing done, or want something good done for this country and them. And that means, sometimes, the better choice is somebody who's not a Democrat.," he told ABC News' Jonathan Karl in 2009.

In the Senate, where even debating the most mundane bill requires a super-majority of 60, each Senator has enormous power.

"Congress has become more partisan in recent years but there are still a lot of cross-partisan and bipartisan votes. Senators in particular have more freedom to act independently of their parties because of the influence individual senators can have under Senate rule," according to Randall Strahan, a political scientist at Emory University.

The power of individual Senators is why party loyalty is so important. Having another Independent could make passing legislation even more interesting in the coming year.