WASHINGTON — Thursday was a good day for Sen. Daniel Akaka and the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act that he hopes will be his legacy.
But you never know what tomorrow will bring.
Akaka’s Indian Affairs Committee advanced a trimmed down version of his namesake bill with little discussion Thursday afternoon. But objections from two of the panel’s Republicans bode poorly for the chances of passing it before Akaka’s time in Congress is over. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye was blunt in his assessment of the bill’s prospects.
“Well, the odds are bad, but we’re going to try our best,” Inouye told Civil Beat before the bill was amended, as expected, during the hearing. “It should make it easier to pass. We’ll see.”
The next step for the bill would be a hearing on the floor of the Senate, but it’s never gotten that far. Akaka said he can now begin reaching out to colleagues to ask for their support, and said he believes the streamlined version approved Thursday will be easier to sell than bulkier predecessors.
“No sense talking to people and then something changes. But now it’s set, and we can use whatever’s there to educate and inform my colleagues for the purpose of getting support,” he said after the hearing. “So now we’ve got to hustle for support of the bill that we passed here.”
One major change was removing language establishing a federal roll for Native Hawaiians to join. Instead, the bill acknowledges the Native Hawaiian Roll Commission, set up last year by Hawaii Legislature. The amended version also now points to the Indian Reorganization Act as a model for the Native Hawaiians. Akaka and staff said the bill was cut down to leave only the core element — a government-to-government relationship — and little excess fat that could confuse or distract other senators.
“Mainly, this bill therefore becomes a bill which seeks parity of indigenous peoples of the United States, which are the American Indians and Alaska Natives, to include the Native Hawaiians and for the federal government to give that parity,” Akaka said.
“I’ve always felt strongly that there was something missing for the Hawaiians. Hawaiians have been organizing themselves in groups and they have the Hawaiian Home Lands place where the Hawaiians can live, but I felt there was an absence of governance. And so this parity will provide that. So the Hawaiians can get back together as a government entity and work things out for themselves.
“We’re doing this to preserve our culture, our traditions and to try to educate our young people to know about our culture and traditions,” he said. “Because without that, it’s not Hawaii.”
Among those Akaka — and Inouye, on his behalf — would need to convince are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. The concern isn’t necessarily that Reid opposes the bill but rather that he may not want to spend precious little time or political capital with so much on Congress’ plate. Bringing the Akaka Bill to the floor would likely result in delays and a protracted fight from Republicans.
Indian Affairs Vice Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, was the lone panel member to raise his voice in opposition to the bill. At the end of the hearing, he noted that Sen. John McCain, who was absent, wished to be marked down as a “nay” vote as well.
Barrasso said during his opening remarks his position remains that all new tribes should be recognized through an administrative process managed by the Department of the Interior — not Congressional action.
“We know there are members of our conference who also feel strongly that the process set up under this bill is not the one we should be taking,” Barrasso said.
But despite the disagreement on policy, he paid tribute to Akaka, the only Native Hawaiian ever elected to the U.S. Senate, who will retire when his term ends at the end of the year.
“You’ve dedicated many years of your life in the Senate to recognition of Native Hawaiian government,” Barrasso said. “So regardless of how I or anyone else feels about the merits of your bill, I admire your tenacity, your dedication, your leadership, not only to this cause but to the well-being of native people everywhere.”
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