Deal may be in the works on Akaka bill
By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
An impasse over the Bush administration's energy bill may give Hawai'i senators a chance to push federal recognition for Native Hawaiians onto the Senate floor.
That option was raised last week by U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, and by a key member of his staff, who said there will be time to negotiate for federal recognition as the current version of the controversial energy bill gets another look over the next few weeks.
Patricia Zell, Inouye's chief counsel for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, told Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustees at a meeting last week that the Hawai'i senators may be able to trade their votes for the energy bill in exchange for passage of the so-called Akaka bill, named for its sponsor, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i.
Zell said such an exchange could be achieved either by inserting the federal recognition language into the energy bill or by extracting a pledge from Senate leadership to bring the Akaka bill up for a separate vote.
Akaka could not be reached for comment. His spokesman, Paul Cardus, said Akaka has not been approached for such a deal. However, Inouye, reached at his fund-raising dinner in Honolulu on Thursday, confirmed that the senators "are being courted" by Senate leadership for their support of the energy bill.
"They never do this directly, of course," Inouye said. "It's being handled through staff."
Exactly what sort of deal could be struck if any is unclear. The energy bill, S. 2095, has been revised since the Bush administration first began shopping around for votes late last year, say environmental lobbyists who have been tracking its progress.
Representatives for some environmental and public-interest groups, such as the Cato Institute, believe it's too late in the session, and too close to the election, for much more work to be done on something as controversial as the energy bill.
However, others including legislative experts for the U.S. Public Interest Research Groups and the Sierra Club yesterday said the bill's struggle for survival will go on over the next week or two. Other legislation this week has taken precedence, delaying the debate over the energy bill, said lobbyist Anna Aurilio.
"There is a lot of possibility there will be dealing," said Aurilio, U.S. PIRG's legislative director. "And they have a little bit of time now."
Zell told OHA trustees that in the meantime, the senators are continuing talks about changes to the Akaka bill that in part are aimed at defusing Bush administration concerns.
One amendment, she said, would more clearly define Native Hawaiians as those who can trace their ancestry either to someone who qualified for a homestead lease under the federal Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, or to someone who was an indigenous Hawaiian before January 1893, shortly before the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom.
Other changes, Zell said, would be aimed at deflecting White House worries that a Native Hawaiian government would run into clashes with state, local and federal laws similar to conflicts experienced by Native American tribes.
Under federal law, she said, recognized tribes are granted certain jurisdictions and rights, some of which such as gaming and criminal prosecution are at odds with U.S. governments.
The revisions being proposed would clarify that the Native Hawaiian government would not be a tribe and that questions of jurisdiction could be resolved through later negotiations, Zell said.
"There is an underlying assumption that the Native Hawaiian governing entity would be cloaked with the status of a tribe, and we need to convey that this is not a correct assumption," she said.
"A Native Hawaiian government is going to be unique in the family of governments. It would not be an Indian tribal government."
Reach Vicki Viotti at 525-8053 or email@example.com.