Republican puts hold on federal recognition bill
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON A Senate Republican has placed an anonymous hold on a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill, making it unlikely that the bill will be debated before the Senate breaks next week for summer recess.
Similar tactics have effectively stalled the bill in the Senate since it was first proposed in 2000, but Hawai'i lawmakers said they will continue to talk with their colleagues and the Bush administration about breaking the stalemate.
Gov. Linda Lingle and trustees from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs have put off a planned lobbying trip here next week now that it appears the bill will not reach the Senate floor.
The Hawai'i congressional delegation met with Department of Justice officials Wednesday and said the department is still reviewing the legislation. Over the past few months, supporters of the bill have been anxious because of indications the Justice Department may oppose it.
Lingle said yesterday that the sticking point is the "issue of whether or not Congress has the authority under the Indian Commerce Clause of the constitution to grant this kind of recognition to Native Hawaiians," she said, adding that the debate may work in the bill's favor because it doesn't focus on race-based issues.
"Congress or any legislative body doesn't like their authority questioned," she said.
Meanwhile, Hawai'i's congressional delegation said the meeting with Justice Department officials went well.
"The meeting was useful and effective," said Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, the bill's main sponsor. "We helped the department to better understand the history of Hawai'i and the importance of this legislation to all people of Hawai'i."
Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, described the meeting as "most promising."
Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, who is waiting for the Senate to act before pushing the bill in the House, said the Bush administration is the key factor. "If they support it, it will pass easily," the congressman said. "If they don't support it, the task becomes much more difficult."
Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, said the delegation wanted to "make sure that the facts are straight, the issues are framed right, and the human face is put on."
The legislation, known as the Akaka bill, would allow Native Hawaiians to form their own sovereign government that could be recognized by the United States, similar to the governing structures adopted by the American Indians and Native Alaskans. The Department of Interior would compile a list of Hawaiians eligible and willing to participate in the new government.
Supporters believe the bill could give Hawaiians more political power and, possibly, some legal protection for native programs that have been challenged in court as unconstitutional race-based preferences.
Hawai'i lawmakers had wanted to get the bill on the Senate floor before the recess, knowing the schedule will likely be crowded when lawmakers return in September. But it became clear after a meeting Tuesday with Inouye, Akaka and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., that the anonymous hold would make it difficult for senators to debate the recognition bill while also considering energy, homeland security and other legislation.
Although not officially part of the Senate's rules, holds are traditionally honored out of respect and collegiality. A senator can anonymously use holds to freeze legislation, either to keep a bill from moving forward, or as a negotiating tactic to get concessions on other legislation.
Rowena Akana, a trustee with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, has been in Washington for the past few days meeting with lawmakers about the bill. She said most of the talks have been "very, very positive."
"There are other ways to get around a hold," Akana said. "It isn't over."
The majority leader can file a motion to release a hold, which can trigger lengthy debate and a filibuster, which requires 60 votes to break.
Some senators would like to make holds more transparent. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., want to require senators who object to a bill or nomination to disclose their hold in the Congressional Record within two days.
Senate leaders agreed in 1999 to ask senators with holds to notify bill sponsors and the relevant committees, but the practice of anonymous holds continued.
"I think the secrecy involved is problematic," said Lauren Cohen Bell, assistant professor of political science at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. "I think they should be open and accountable to the people."
At a press conference yesterday, Lingle said she talked with Akaka and Inouye on Tuesday, and both said the bill wasn't expected to be scheduled before Congress recesses in August.
Lingle said she will continue to lobby for the bill at the administrative and Senate level, and will likely travel to Washington, D.C., in September. She said she also hopes to travel to Arizona next month to speak with Republican Sen. Jon Kyl who has concerns about the measure and that she plans to speak to Frist next week over the phone.
Rumors of a hold on the Akaka bill have been circulating for the past week among foes of the legislation, as well as e-mails urging opponents to write to key members of Congress. Lela Hubbard, one of those opponents, said she "prayed hard" that the bill would stall but added that the fight isn't over until the session ends.
"It's still pins and needles and finger-chewing time," she said.
Staff writer Vicki Viotti contributed to this report.