After a 10-year slog, supporters of the Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill think they have their best chance yet to pass the legislation.

It also may be their last chance for many years.

Democrats are expected to lose seats in both the U.S. House and Senate this fall, making it even more difficult to scrape up the votes to pass the bill in the next Congress. Republican support is necessary, even now, to pass the bill.

The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act — aka the Akaka bill — would establish a process for Native Hawaiians to gain U.S. recognition similar to Indian tribes.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the measure in February, and Hawaii’s senior senators — Daniel Akaka, for whom the bill is named, and Daniel K. Inouye, both Democrats — have said this year that passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate is likely.

That can happen only if the Akaka bill gets a floor vote, though. As of mid-June, none had been scheduled. And there’s no promise from the Senate Majority Leader’s Office that one will be. There’s also a dwindling number of Senate session days remaining.

Akaka, the first U.S. senator of Native Hawaiian ancestry, told Civil Beat he remains “optimistic” about his bill’s chances.

“The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act has momentum, with strong support from the president and his administration, and I look forward to a spirited debate on the Senate floor,” he told Civil Beat through a spokesman.

If the bill makes it to the floor, Democrats need 60 votes to invoke cloture, which would block a possible Republican filibuster. Cloture allows for 30 additional hours of debate, and the bill would then only require a simple majority to pass.

But there are only 58 Democrats in the Senate. The vote has become complicated by Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle‘s decision to oppose the latest version, after years of backing the bill. Her argument is countered by the support of Hawaii-born President Barack Obama, a constitutional scholar.

The last time the Senate voted on the Akaka bill, in 2006, the vote for cloture fell short, 56-41. Republicans then controlled the chamber 55-44 (the lone independent at the time leaned Democrat).

All the “nays” in the 2006 vote came from Republicans, while two Democrats — Chuck Schumer and Jay Rockefeller — were absent. Of the 13 Republicans that voted for cloture, four are no longer in office.

Lingle Sent Letters to Senators Outlining Concerns

The governor and her attorney general, Mark Bennett, were among the top cheerleaders for the legislation before language in the bill was altered last December.

The changes reflected in the final text were designed to clarify the authority and powers of the entity prior to negotiations, Akaka said in a news release at that time.

Lingle and Bennett argue that the governing entity created by the new bill “will be almost completely free from state and county regulation” and have “almost complete sovereign immunity from lawsuits.”

“I do not believe such a structure, of two completely different sets of rules – one for ‘governmental’ activities of the Native Hawaiian governing entity and its officers and employees, and one for everyone else – makes sense for Hawai‘i,” she said.

Despite Lingle’s opposition, the House approved the amended bill, 245-164.

In March, Lingle sent letters to all 100 senators outlining her concerns. Now, it’s not clear if a Senate vote will occur.

“No dates have been set for Senate floor consideration of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act,” said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, deputy communications director for Akaka.

“It is on a list of possible items we will consider this year,” said Regan Lachapelle, deputy communications director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada.

Peter Boylan, press secretary for Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, deferred questions on the bill to Akaka’s office.

“It’s their game, though obviously we are working together,” said Boylan. “But they have the lead on this bill.”

Running Out Of Session Days

There’s not much time left on the Senate’s official calendar.

Barring a change in the schedule, senators will not be in session July 5-9 and Aug. 9 through Sept. 10. Not counting weekends, that leaves only nine work days in June, 15 in July, five in August and 14 in September. And two of the September days are Jewish holidays when it would be highly unlikely that a floor vote would be held.

The Senate has not indicated its adjournment date, but the U.S. House is shooting for Oct. 8. If the Senate picked the same date, lawmakers would have only five work days in October.

It’s also a big election year, with one-third of Senate seats — including Inouye’s — up for re-election. Among the most hotly contested seats is the one held by Reid, who is attempting to face down Tea Partier Sharron Angle. Reid may have to weigh any decision on a vote at least in part based on the potential impact on the re-election prospects of his party’s senators.

Finally, the Senate has its hands full with major legislation and other votes, including a U.S. Supreme Court nomination and energy and climate bills to control greenhouse gas emissions and reduce U.S. dependence on fossil fuels in the wake of the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Reaching Out To Republicans

It’s not clear exactly how many Democrat, Republican and independent votes Inouye and Akaka can count on for the bill’s passage. But Akaka’s spokesman said the measure has strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, describing the bill as “on track.”

“Senator Akaka does not take any votes for granted but he is optimistic he will have support to allow an up-or-down vote,” Broder Van Dyke said. “I can’t speculate on what the actual count will be.”

Clyde Namuo, CEO of the state’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs, expressed similar optimism.

“There is sufficient time for the bill to be acted on this year,” he told Civil Beat. “We are confident that Congress will make time to hear the bill during this session. There are 59 majority members (one of the 59 is a former Democratic vice presidential candidate who is now an independent) and we know that our two senators are working to reach out to various minority members.”

Namuo called the Akaka Bill a “historic piece of legislation” that Native Hawaiians “have long deserved,” adding, “If the bill doesn’t pass it will need to be reintroduced in 2011.”

The question, if that occurs, will be whether its prospects are even worse, given that Democratic representation in the Senate is expected to shrink by from five to seven seats.


DISCUSSION: *Join the Civil Beat discussion about the Akaka bill. Read what other members have to say about the legislation and share your own perspective about how the important issues it raises should be addressed.

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