WASHINGTON — Regardless of who takes control of the U.S. Senate, Native Hawaiians will likely be in a better position in 2021 than they have been over the past four years with President Donald Trump in the White House.

Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz is poised to hold one of the top two positions on the Indian Affairs Committee, depending on the results of two runoff elections in Georgia that will determine which party holds the majority in the chamber.

If Democrats win, Schatz will be committee chairman, following in the footsteps of Hawaii’s longtime senators, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka.

Should Republicans retain control, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski — a well-known ally of Hawaii’s federal delegation — will be the chair with Schatz as the ranking Democrat.

Senator Brian Schatz town meeting Mamiya Theatre gesture. 17 april 2017
U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz is poised to take on a bigger role in Washington after the 2020 election. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Lisa is a dear friend and we already started talking two months ago about a shared agenda,” Schatz said. “We made sure to talk about what we were going to do together on behalf of Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians so far in advance that it really would bind us regardless of who won the election.

“That’s the kind of friendship that our two predecessors Dan Inouye and Ted Stevens had. They always agreed that whoever was in charge it was a real partnership. So I’m excited to dig into these issues with Lisa and work with the Native Hawaiian community to talk about what comes next.”

Any legislation they pursue, whether it’s expanding broadband or addressing the impact of climate change on Native communities, will have a much better shot of getting funded. The change also bodes well for efforts to increase funding for Native Hawaiian health care, housing and education.

Schatz said he didn’t yet have any specific plans or legislation to share.

The relationship between Inouye, a Democrat, and Stevens, an Alaska Republican, is baked into Washington lore.

They served together for nearly four decades and became such close friends that they would refer to each other as “brother” and campaign for one another despite their partisan differences.

Native Hawaiians have a special relationship with the federal government that is akin to that shared by Native American tribes. While Native Hawaiians are not federally recognized as a sovereign nation, specific programs have been created to provide them with affordable housing, health care, education and business opportunities.

“Maybe I’m pollyannaish, but I don’t think we’re headed to a partisan meltdown.” — Andy Winer, former chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

Andy Winer is Schatz’s former chief of staff and a lobbyist, whose client list includes the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma.

He said the importance of having Murkowski and Schatz at the head of Indian Affairs cannot be understated, especially given the fact they both sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“That becomes an extremely powerful combination of committee assignments,” Winer said. “It’s a big deal. It’s going to mean that there’s an opportunity to really put a focus on Native Hawaiian issues in a way that has been more difficult over the last few Congresses.”

A Joe Biden presidency combined with a U.S. House controlled by Democrats will only help, Winer said. Native Hawaiians will also have an advocate in Congressman-elect Kai Kahele, a Democrat who recently won a seat vacated by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

Kahele, who is of Native Hawaiian descent, has said that he intends to make Native Hawaiian issues a top priority. He will be only the second Native Hawaiian to serve in Congress since Hawaii statehood in 1959. Akaka was the first.

There’s no assurance anything will come easy for Hawaii’s Democratic delegation or the party as a whole. Even if Democrats do retake the Senate it will be by the slimmest of margins, either a 51-49 majority or 50-50 split with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaker.

Chair Kai Kahele gestures during water rights hearing with left, Ways and Means chair Donovan.
Kai Kahele will be the only Native Hawaiian serving in Congress when he’s sworn in next year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Continued Republican control would leave Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell as majority leader, and he has shown that he’s unafraid to be an obstructionist.

Winer said the more likely scenario is that McConnell will work with Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, although Democrats will have to temper their ambitions to secure Republican buy-in.

“McConnell knows how to read the tea leaves,” Winer said. “Maybe I’m pollyannaish, but I don’t think we’re headed to a partisan meltdown. Pelosi, McConnell and Biden are all old war horses who know how to make a deal. There may be an outbreak of pragmatism.”

Of course the opposite could hold true. McConnell and his Republican majority could grind everything to a halt, whether it’s Biden’s Cabinet appointments or an infrastructure package.

Should that happen then, Winer says, McConnell and his party will have to live with the consequences in 2022 when Republicans will once again find themselves on the defensive electorally.

“The payback could be fairly steep,” Winer said.

Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono is keeping a close eye on McConnell, a man who’s killed so much Democratic-led legislation that he’s taken to calling himself the Grim Reaper.

Senator Mazie Hirono speaks on election night at the Dole Cannery Ballroom.
U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono doesn’t trust that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will let go of his obstructionist ways in 2021. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Hirono has been one of Trump’s most persistent critics on issues such as immigration and judicial nominees, particularly for the U.S. Supreme Court, but she hasn’t shied away from taking on McConnell, whether in the press or to his face.

With Biden in the White House, she said she has little faith McConnell will give up his role as obstructionist. She said she hopes he will “see the light” and work across the aisle on COVID-19 relief and infrastructure, but she wouldn’t be surprised if he digs in his heels as he has the past two years.

“Mitch McConnell will do that which will help Mitch McConnell and the Republicans,” Hirono said. “I would be very happy if he decides that what’s good for him is to actually work with the Democrats so we can get things done in a bipartisan way. But if he decides that’s not good for Mitch McConnell then I expect he won’t do it.”

Unlike Schatz, Hirono is not in line for any committee chairmanships. If Democrats win the Senate she could take over two subcommittees on Armed Services and the Judiciary where she currently serves.

Hirono said she looks forward to working with the incoming Biden administration to address the nation’s immigration issues. In particular, she said she wants to resurrect an Obama-era program that reunited Filipino World War II veterans with their families. The Trump administration terminated the program in 2019.

Whatever happens, she said she expects Biden to move past at least some of the partisan rancor that has been pulling at the seams of democracy.

“Everyone should realize that Joe Biden is going to be a president for all of us, not just the blue states or the red states, but all states,” she said. “I think that kind of message from the president — which is not what we’ve been hearing for the past four years — will make a difference.”

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