For a decade, longtime Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka has been trying to win federal recognition for Native Hawaiians. Year after year, Akaka has seen the bill that bears his name pass the House several times only to stall in the Senate due to Republican opposition.

Now, former Gov. Linda Lingle hopes to fill the seat being vacated by Akaka, the only Native Hawaiian to serve in the U.S. Senate.

But Lingle, if elected, could be serving in a Republican-controlled Senate come 2013, if some political prognosticators are proven correct. The House is already under GOP rule and likely to stay so.

So could the Republican Lingle accomplish what the Democrat Akaka has not been able to — passage of federal recognition of Native Hawaiians?

The 2012 election is expected to be close, and a candidate’s position on the Akaka bill could be a factor. Lingle has stressed her bipartisan work on the bill as a reason to send her to Washington. A Republican senator from Hawaii who supports the issue could be just the one to convince her colleagues to finally pass the measure.

But does Lingle really support the measure?

Although she touted her work on Native Hawaiian recognition as an example of her bipartisan record when she announced her Senate candidacy last week, Lingle’s record is much more mixed.

Lingle opposes the version of the Akaka bill that is currently before Congress — the one introduced by Hawaii’s congressional delegation and approved by the U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama — all Democrats.

She also dropped her support of a 2010 version of the bill — and urged Republican senators to do the same — because the bill included language she did not agree with.

What Lingle Said

The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act — more commonly known as the Akaka bill because he is the prime sponsor — would create a process for Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition similar to Native American and Native Alaskan tribes.

The bill would facilitate the creation of a governing entity organized by Native Hawaiians who are able to demonstrate authentic ancestry. The Hawaiian government would be authorized to enter into negotiations on transferring lands, natural resources and other assets from the state.

Though the bill has passed the House several times, it has not made it out of the Senate because it cannot muster the necessary 60 votes to avoid a Republican filibuster.

Lingle believes her support for the Akaka bill is one reason she should be elected to the Senate. Here is what Lingle said Oct. 11 at the Pacific Club when she formally announced her campaign:

As you know, not everyone in my party supports the Akaka bill for Native Hawaiian recognition. I do, I’ve been clear about it. I worked with Sen. Akaka very closely on that bill and in fact I was able to secure Republican co-sponsors of that bill — people who he couldn’t get, but who I could go up and talk with and explain from a Republican point of view why this bill was the right thing to do, why it made sense for Hawaii’s economy and for our people and indeed for the country. So, I really have good experience working across party lines.

Lingle makes the same point on her campaign website, in an issues section titled Bipartisanship: “[I] worked closely with Senators and Congressmen of both parties to sponsor and hold hearings on the Akaka bill for native Hawaiian recognition.”

Civil Beat emailed the Lingle campaign Tuesday asking to speak to the candidate directly about this issue. Lingle did not respond and her campaign staff directed inquiries to her former attorney general, Mark Bennett.

An earlier email seeking to clarify which version of the Akaka bill she supported drew a response from Russell Pang, who handles media relations for the campaign:

In Governor Lingle’s remarks last week, she was referring to an earlier version (S. 147) of the Akaka Bill.

Pang also included information that identified Republican senators who Lingle had lobbied for the bill’s passage, stating that it was at “the request of Sens. Inouye and Akaka who sought Governor Lingle’s assistance in reaching out to Republican senators. …”

A spokesman for Akaka told Civil Beat, “Senator Akaka appreciates the way Governor Lingle worked with the Congressional delegation to advance Native Hawaiian recognition, and was thankful for her support during the time she supported the legislation.”

What Lingle Did Not Say

The 2010 version of the Akaka bill was introduced in both houses of Congress in May 2009. In December of that year the bill was amended to include language approved by the U.S. Justice Department.

Lingle and her attorney general, Mark Bennett, strongly opposed the language. They argued that a Hawaiian governing entity could be “almost completely free from state and county regulation” and may have “almost complete sovereign immunity from lawsuits.”

On March 24, Lingle sent a letter, as reported by The Honolulu Advertiser, to U.S. senators urging them to reject the bill:

Lingle also sent a letter to U.S. Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka informing them of her letter to their colleagues.

“I truly regret that we were unable to reach an agreement on acceptable language for the bill,” Lingle writes.

By July, Lingle and the Democrats resolved their difference, bolstering chances that the bill would pass. Lingle again wrote to senators, this time asking them to pass the bill.

But by then it was too late. The Akaka bill did not get a vote that year. It might even have passed; the Senate was at one point comprised of 57 Democrats, 41 Republicans and two independents who caucus with the Democrats — a near supermajority.

A new congress was sworn in in January 2011.

In late March, Akaka introduced a new version of his bill in the Senate, while Reps. Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa did so in the U.S. House. A press release from Akaka’s office included statements of strong support from Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

The bill is the same version of the bill that Lingle and her attorney general so strongly opposed in early 2010.

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