Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has waged a fierce independent write-in campaign to retain her Senate seat, now is 1,716 votes ahead of Republican challenger Joe Miller, according to Alaska's Division of Elections.

Murkowski has 92,164 of the 94,674 write-in votes cast in Alaska, while Miller has 90,448 votes. Her vote tally, which includes 7,601 challenged but counted votes, is expected to widen as several thousand more write-in votes are counted through Wednesday.

But even if Murkowski captures the majority of the votes, this may not be the end of the battle between the two candidates. Miller supporters have threatened lawsuits to disqualify the challenged ballots that went into the count for Murkowski. Republican ballot watchers were challenging ballots mainly based on misspellings of Murkowski's name (see Daily GPI, Nov. 15). However, if she should win based solely on unchallenged ballots, it would be difficult for Miller to mount a viable challenge.

Confidence is growing that Murkowski will remain the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee if she wins her write-in campaign.

"I think the likelihood is high that she would retain that position," said Martin Edwards, vice president of legislative affairs for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America. "She didn't quit. She still considers herself a Republican," which are factors in her favor, he noted.

Murkowski was in Washington, DC, last week and met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to discuss the issue of her continuing as ranking GOP member of the Senate energy panel. And at a fund raiser for her legal defense fund, she indicated that her confidence was "pretty high" that she would keep her ranking seat on the committee.

"Her campaign over the last two months has been the most impressive Senate campaign in the last 50 years," Edwards said. "It's like catching a shark with a fly rod," he said.

"I can't think of any reason why they would take it away from her," said one source. He recalled that Senate Republicans did not remove Murkowski from her top GOP seat on the committee in September, despite her defeat in the August primary election to Miller (see Daily GPI, Sept. 23).

If re-elected, Murkowski's fate on the committee will be decided by Republicans on the committee and the Republican caucus. Murkowski's biggest critic is Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC).

As Murkowski battles to keep her seat, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), chairman of the Senate energy panel, is hoping to pass a package of public lands and wilderness bills out of his committee during the abbreviated lame duck session, a spokesman said.

"This isn't a big land grab. The oil and gas industry shouldn't be too concerned," said Bingaman spokesman Bill Wicker. This is "high on his wish list for the lame duck," but "there's no guarantee."

The lame duck session will include this week and early December. Congress will take a break next week for Thanksgiving.

The land package includes roughly 60 bills that set aside lands and wilderness areas, mostly in the West.

Bingaman's latest attempt at a lands bill comes more than a year after Congress approved a $10-11 billion lands bill (see Daily GPI, March 26, 2009). While many in Congress and the Obama administration cheered passage of the lands bill then, oil and natural gas producers saw it as their worst nightmare. They argued that it would take millions of acres of public lands in the West off the table for potential oil and natural gas development.

There are many other energy issues on the Senate's plate -- a renewable electricity standard, energy efficiency, tax extenders and the Gulf of Mexico spill bill -- but even the most optimistic of lawmakers say the odds are low of any significant action on these during the lame duck.

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