As Washington, D.C., paid silent tribute to the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda on Thursday, his longtime friend Sen. Daniel Akaka asked his colleagues to complete a task the two lawmakers never could — pass the Akaka bill.

The legislation, which would give a measure of autonomy to Native Hawaiians and allow them to form their own government, never gained traction despite Akaka and Inouye’s best attempts over the past 12 years.

On Thursday, Akaka invoked Inouye’s name on the Senate floor in hopes of giving one last push to his namesake bill.

“To me, as I know it was for Dan, this bill is about simple justice — fairness in federal policy. And being a nation that acknowledges that while we cannot undo history, we can right past wrongs and move forward,” Akaka said. “I urge my colleagues to pass the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act in the memory of Sen. Daniel K. Inouye and his desire to provide parity to the Native Hawaiian people he loved so much.”

Bill Stymied In Senate

The Akaka Bill — that is, the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act — is arguably the most significant legislation affecting Hawaii since the U.S. Congress voted to allow Hawaii to enter the union in 1959.

The bill would allow for the creation of a governing entity organized by Native Hawaiians who are able to demonstrate ancestry requirements. A roll commission created by the Hawaii Legislature last year is already collecting those names.

The governing entity, which would have a government-to-government relationship with the United States, has consistently been supported by all members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation. It has also passed the U.S. House of Representatives several times.

But Republicans in the Senate have halted the bill, saying it is discriminatory and unconstitutional — even as prominent Hawaii Republicans like former Gov. Linda Lingle have lobbied for its passage.

Whether Akaka’s emotional pitch will change things is unclear. The Senate has a lot on its plate right now, and partisan fighting is at an all-time high.

But the outpouring of grief over Inouye’s death could soften Republican obstinance.

Immediately after Akaka spoke, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska took the podium and threw her support behind the bill.

She noted the similarities between her constituents — Alaska natives — and Native Hawaiians, saying it was unjust that efforts to provide federal recognition have been filibustered.

“Both are aboriginal peoples from former territories,” she said. “And yet the fact of the matter is that the two peoples are not treated the same for purposes of federal Indian law.”

Murkowski pledged to keep Akaka’s cause alive even after he retires in January. She said Akaka and Inouye worked “valiantly” to create programs for Native Hawaiians that are similar to those available to American Indians.

But that’s not enough, she said.

“The time to provide parity and justice for Hawaii’s native people is now,” Murkowski said. “And I will commit to you my friend, Sen. Akaka, the cause you have taken up that you have worked on so hard with Sen. Inouye, this cause will not die until justice for the native people of Hawaii is achieved.”

Watch Akaka’s speech: