Time running out on Akaka bill
By Frank Oliveri
Advertiser Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON The greatest hurdle to Native Hawaiian recognition could be time.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said last week that too many other issues are clogging the Senate floor, including the federal budget, to find room for the recognition bill anytime soon.
Sens. Daniel Akaka and Dan Inouye recently sent a letter to Frist asking for floor time to debate and vote on Hawaiian recognition. Frist said he would try to find time for the bill, which is in line behind several other measures.
The effort to gain national recognition for Native Hawaiians has been problematic, so when Frist raised no substantive concerns about the bill, the Hawai'i delegation viewed it as a small victory.
"We are making movement," Akaka said last week.
Akaka's bill seeks federal recognition of Native Hawaiians on par with recognition granted to American Indian tribes and Native Alaskan villages. The bill must be passed by the time Congress adjourns in October or the arduous process will start from scratch in 2005.
"In the big picture, the challenges have always been twofold one, substance; and the other, process," said Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i.
Hawai'i lawmakers said they have made progress addressing concerns about the bill's substance raised by other lawmakers and Interior Department officials.
But getting the bill on the Senate calendar has been difficult.
At least one senator placed an anonymous hold on the recognition bill, which is allowed under Senate procedures. Members of Hawai'i's delegation eventually discovered the source of the hold but won't reveal who it was. They did say the objection was based on perceived racial preferences.
"In some cases they have settled down about what we are trying to do," said Akaka, who has all but ruled out attaching his bill to another measure, fearing it may be killed.
He said the delegation will continue educating other lawmakers about the bill in hopes that the anonymous hold will be lifted.
During a recent visit to Washington, Gov. Linda Lingle and Micah Kane, chairman of the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, pushed the federal recognition cause to Vice President Dick Cheney, Interior Secretary Gale Norton, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Lingle and others are attempting to address Norton's concerns that the Akaka bill fails to explicitly define Interior's role in relation to the proposed Native Hawaiian government.
"The way it is set up, they are our entree with the United States government," Akaka said.
An Interior Department spokeswoman would not comment on the legislation, saying only that the department has no official opinion on the bill.
Some viewed that as a positive sign. Often, in not taking an official position on the bill, Interior officials would note some substantive issue that still needed to be addressed.
"The only real objections I'm hearing are process rather than overall merits," Case said.
Case and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, introduced a companion House bill on Feb. 11, 2003, and are waiting for issues to be addressed on the Senate side before going forward. The House passed a similar bill in 2000. As a result, the bill is expected to pass there without much trouble.