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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, May 25, 2002

Native bill is getting nowhere

By Susan Roth
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Native Hawaiian recognition bill remains stalled by Republicans in the House and Senate, confounding members of Hawai'i's Democratic congressional delegation.

Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Linda Lingle, who is actively seeking the Hawaiian vote and has encouraged some Hawaiians to run for lieutenant governor, says she supports the bill but is too busy with her campaign to try to smooth the way for its passage. She said she did not discuss the bill with any fellow Republicans during her trip to Washington last month.

"I'm running for governor," she said.

Lingle said that if elected, she would help with the bill. But she said, "I don't have any specific program up here (in Washington) to get it adopted."

It's now been a year since a House committee approved the bill, which would allow the creation of a Native Hawaiian government similar to those of American Indian tribes. In July it will be a year since it was approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee headed by Sen. Dan Inouye, who co-sponsored the measure with Sen. Daniel Akaka.

The bill's failure to progress on the floor of either chamber in the past year contrasts with two years ago, when it easily passed the House by voice vote, only to be held up by Republicans in the Senate.

The House had the same Republican leadership at that time, and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who co-sponsored it in the House with Rep. Patsy Mink, still has strong support from Republican friends in relatively powerful positions.

Abercrombie expressed frustration this week with the delays. But he said he is pressing GOP leaders for action and he believes that the issue is now "on the leadership's radar screen."

Among those helping him are House Resources Committee Chairman James Hansen, R-Utah, a well-

respected senior Republican; former Resources chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, who was instrumental in moving the bill two years ago; Rep. Curt Weldon, R-Pa., a top member of the House Armed Services Committee; and GOP Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina, Henry Bonilla of Texas and Richard Pombo of California.

"It has never been a partisan issue until this time," Abercrombie said. "I am doing my best to try to defuse the situation — publicly, privately, every way I know how. The merits of this bill have long since been resolved. There is virtually unanimous support in the (Hawaiian) community. And there was no dissent in the Resources Committee, where we have every stripe of ideology represented."

Abercrombie predicted that if the bill doesn't pass soon, "This issue will work itself out in the upcoming elections. A judgment will be made in the voting booth."

Abercrombie, who attacked Lingle on previous occasions for what he called her lack of assistance with the recognition bill, said it won't be necessary for him to make it an issue in November.

"I do not make issues," he said. "Issues make themselves."

But Lingle said she would point out the inability of the all-Democratic delegation to move the bill.

"We're politically isolated from the federal government, because there's not one Republican in our federal delegation," she said. "We have no direct links to the White House. It will be helpful to have me as governor."

In the Senate, Hawai'i's lawmakers say they are still trying to get the legislation passed unanimously, although they are becoming less optimistic about the prospects as time elapses. The last time they tried to move it, about two months ago, the measure once again hit a GOP roadblock.

Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona are still believed to head up a group opposing the bill because they feel it would establish a system of racial preference for Hawaiians. Under Senate rules, any one senator can secretly hold up a bill.

"With all the legislation the Senate has to consider before the end of the 107th Congress, it will be difficult to get (the bill) on the agenda and passed," Akaka said this week. "I continue to do all that I can to bring this bill to the floor and will make every effort to do so before the 107th Congress is adjourned."