A fishing vessel is dwarfed by the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl in Juneau’s downtown harbor in September 2014. A resolution urging federal action on maritime laws was held up by House Republicans with legal concerns. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

A fishing vessel is dwarfed by the Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Pearl in Juneau’s downtown harbor in September 2014. A resolution urging federal action on maritime laws was held up by House Republicans with legal concerns. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)

House Republicans balk at cruise ship waiver language

Members don’t want to ask for federal executive order

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the law in question. It is the Passenger Vessel Services Act, not the Passenger Vehicle Services Act. The article has been updated to reflect the change.

Republican lawmakers in the Alaska House of Representatives are objecting to some of the language in a joint resolution urging federal action to allow cruise ships to travel to Alaska, despite the broad bipartisan support the bill received in the Senate.

In a Monday morning floor session, House Republicans objected to the resolution that asks Congress to waive federal law allowing large cruise ships to visit Alaska this summer, but then also asks the president to waive those regulations should Congress fail to act.

“Asking the president to ignore the law and not enforce it, I find that it undercuts the very purpose for why we are here as a Legislature,” said Rep. David Eastman, R-Wasilla.

Eastman entered an amendment to the bill that would strike the language requesting the executive order and only make the request to Congress. Several of his Republican colleagues made statements in support of the amendment and raised similar concerns about setting precedent for waiving laws.

The waiver in question is for the Passenger Vessel Services Act which forbids passengers from boarding at one U.S. port and disembarking at another. Cruise ships traveling to Alaska typically leave from Seattle and make a stop in Canada. But the Canadian government has banned large cruise ships, citing concern for the spread of COVID-19.

[‘Devastating decision’: Locals react to Canada’s cruise ban]

Alaska’s Congressional delegation has submitted legislation waiving the PVSA and allowing cruise ships to sail from Seattle to Alaska without stopping in Canada. Presidents have used executive orders in the past to waive laws under certain circumstances. In 2017, President Trump waived a similar law known as the Jones Act to more easily allow relief to get to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

Speaking in favor of the amendment, Republican lawmakers said asking Congress to act while at the same time asking the president to use his independent authority undermined the Legislature. Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, said the double request would “bring discredit on us.”

Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Anchorage, told the Empire in an interview he hadn’t considered the issue when he voted to pass the resolution out of the House Transportation Committee last week. He said Eastman’s amendment had raised an issue worth considering.

“I do agree that we are in a dire situation, and if President Biden grants a waiver then he can do so,” McCabe said. “I think the way it’s worded is what’s giving us all pause.”

The amendment did lead to extended debate on the floor and ultimately the resolution was held until Wednesday.

The resolution was initially sponsored by Sen. Jesse Kiehl, D-Juneau, but ended up with an additional 15 sponsors in the Senate, including both Republicans and Democrats. It passed unanimously through the Senate and the House Transportation Committee, where McCabe and Reps. Mike Cronk, R-Tok; and Tom McKay, R-Anchorage; voted to recommend the House pass the bill.

The resolution has no legally binding power, Kiehl said, but would send the message Alaskans are looking for action. “It’s the most formal letter we can send,” he said.

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at psegall@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnuEmpire.

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