The latest version of the Akaka bill is not the version of the controversial legislation that former Gov. Linda Lingle signed off on last year.

Instead, the bill that Sen. Daniel Akaka introduced Wednesday in the U.S. Senate and that Rep. Mazie Hirono and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa are sponsoring in the U.S. House, is the same version of the Akaka bill that upset the governor and her attorney general.

Given that the political climate in Washington has changed so dramatically, the latest version could just be Akaka’s swan song after 10 years of unsuccessfully pushing a measure that would be his signature achievement.

But the latest version of the bill has the same language Lingle refused to endorse last year, arguing that it could result in a “split society” in Hawaii should it become law — one “almost completely free from state and county regulation.”

She further warned it would set up a Native Hawaiian governing entity that could have “almost complete sovereign immunity from lawsuits.”

Lingle and then Attorney General Mark Bennett were able to persuade Akaka and Sen. Daniel K. Inouye to amend the bill to address their concerns.

But Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke told Civil Beat that Akaka believes the latest version of the bill will be easier to pass because it is nearly identical to the Akaka bill that was approved by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in December 2009.

Akaka chairs Indian Affairs.

He also said the Obama administration and U.S. Justice Department wanted the latest version of the bill because they believe the measure “adheres to existing federal Indian policy across the country” and would better withstand legal challenges.

Bill’s Passage in Doubt

Lingle’s opposition to the new version of the Akaka bill could be a decisive factor affecting its chances.

Last July, satisfied with the amended version of the Akaka bill, the Republican governor wrote to U.S. senators urging passage of the Akaka bill.

She stated that the amended bill was “constitutional, is good public policy, is (in its to-be-amended form) supported by Hawaii’s citizens, is consistent with Congress’ approach to recognition of other native peoples of America…”

The bill never made it to the Senate floor, despite Democrats holding a near-filibuster majority.

With the 2010 elections, however, Democrats’ majority in the senate narrowed to 53-47, while the House is now led by Republicans, 242-193.

There is today a very different atmosphere in Washington, one fueled by Tea Party anger over spending. That anger led to the temporary halt of congressional earmarks and has made it difficult for the House and Senate to agree on a federal budget.

Many veteran lawmakers, including Akaka, are choosing not to seek re-election in 2012.

The Role of Politics

The Akaka bill does have its supporters.

In addition to the president and the Justice Department, the U.S. Department of the Interior supports it, as do national groups like the American Bar Association, the National Congress of American Indians and the Alaska Federation of Natives.

Local support comes from the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

The Senate and White House are still controlled by Democrats, of course. Perhaps Akaka will benefit from a little aloha farewell from his colleagues.

Akaka’s press release on the bill’s introduction also included statements from not only Inouye, Hirono and Hanabusa but also Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who stated, “I will work with the Congressional delegation to seek Congressional approval.”

But this is also the House of John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Michele Bachmann. It’s difficult to imagine Hirono, who is in only her third term, and freshman Hanabusa holding the sway that Abercrombie did when he successfully guided the bill through several House votes.

The 2012 election season has also already begun, and the names of Lingle, Hirono and Hanabusa are possible contenders for Akaka’s Senate seat, as are former congressmen Ed Case and Charles Djou.

Djou, a Republican, supported the Lingle version of the Akaka bill. Expect both to weigh in on the new legislation.

What’s In the Bill

Formally titled the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2011 (S.675) — read the full text of the 52-page measure here — the bill would create a government-to-government relationship between a Native Hawaiian entity and the United States.

It’s a right “already enjoyed by 565 federally recognized tribes across the U.S. mainland and in Alaska,” according to Akaka’s office.

As Akaka explained in December 2009, his bill was amended “to reflect months of negotiations with the Department of Justice.” He said at the time:

The substitute amendment was drafted with input from many stakeholders. It makes clear that Native Hawaiians should have the same opportunities for self-determination as other indigenous peoples in the United States. It also provides that past claims already adjudicated cannot be revived, future claims are not affected, and defenses to future claims are not affected.

Akaka’s office reiterated Wednesday that the new bill still does not allow Hawaii to secede from the Unitee States, does not allow for private lands to be taken, does not authorize gaming and does not create a reservation on the islands.

The bill also contains several technical amendments that are the result of the latest U.S. Census.

For example, 9,800 Native Hawaiian families now reside on Hawaiian Home Lands, not 6,800; and 25,000 Native Hawaiians (not 18,000) who are eligible to reside on Hawaiian Home Lands are on a waiting list to receive assignments.

In several instances, the word “indigenous” was placed before the words “native people” in the bill.

The Senate bill is now referred to Akaka’s Senate Indian Affairs, where his spokesman says the senator plans to move on the legislation as early as April so that it can be sent to Majority Leader Harry Reid for placement on the Senate calendar.

The House bill goes now to the House Committee on Natural Resources, where Hanabusa is a member.

If both houses pass the bill unamended, the Akaka bill goes to the president’s desk. If it is amended, the chambers will have to reconcile any differences.

A state-level version of the Akaka bill is currently moving through the Hawaii Legislature, but it would not supercede federal legislation should the Akaka bill become law.

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