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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, July 8, 2004

Akaka bill in danger of failing

By Frank Oliveri
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Legislative wrangling yesterday between Republicans and Democrats was holding up a late-session attempt to pass the Native Hawaiian recognition bill.

Sens. Daniel Akaka and Daniel Inouye, recognizing that time is running short on this year's legislative calendar, were prepared to offer a measure on Native Hawaiian recognition as an amendment to a bill that would rewrite the rules on class-action lawsuits.

But squabbles over what kind of amendments would be allowed on the class-action bill have stalled the Hawai'i Democrats. The senators are trying to force a vote on the Native Hawaiian issue because there are only 20 work days left in the Senate.

If no vote on the so-called Akaka bill is held this year, the Hawai'i lawmakers would have to start again from scratch next year.

"This we consider a bipartisan bill," Akaka said, expressing his frustration at the Senate floor tactics. "Our governor supports it. Our state Legislature supports it and the majority of our citizens support it. It is effectively blocked by a few senators who refuse to acknowledge Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people."

Until now, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., has prevented the Native Hawaiian bill from going forward on its own merits. Senators frequently try to attach unrelated legislation to measures that are moving through the body, as a way to force votes and jump-start stalled bills.

The bill, a culmination of five years of work, has been approved by a Senate committee three times. It would:

  • Create a Native Hawaiian governing council.
  • Provide for creation of a legal relationship between the federal government and the Native Hawaiian governing body.
  • Establish a Native Hawaiian relations office within the Interior Department.
  • Permit the federal government and the Native Hawaiian governing body to enter into negotiations on the transfer of lands, natural resources, and empowerment over those lands and resources; and civil and criminal jurisdiction.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who has made the class-action lawsuit bill a top priority, tried to limit amendments to that measure only to those that are related to that issue. He said it was an effort to save time.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D, responded with disdain. He said senators have always had the right to offer germane or nongermane amendments and any effort to limit that right could trigger a Democratic effort to stall the bill.

In addition to the Native Hawaiian issue, Democrats also wanted to offer amendments that would raise the minimum wage and allow the importation of drugs from Canada.

As a compromise, Frist said unlimited germane amendments could be offered but nothing that could be considered unrelated to class action lawsuits. His suggestion triggered an angry outcry.

"This is a sham," Daschle said. "The majority wants to deny the rights of the minority."

Daschle said Frist's willingness to consider unlimited amendments related to class-action lawsuits showed that time was not a concern.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, broke ranks with his party leader, angrily complaining that his agriculture-related amendment would not be considered.

"Its time is now," Craig said. "This will be heard."

Frist was expected to ask for a vote to limit debate on the measure. That vote is expected tomorrow. If it fails, the Akaka-Inouye amendment on Native Hawaiian recognition could be introduced and voted on.

Republican Gov. Linda Lingle has been enlisted to write a letter to all Republican senators asking them to support the bipartisan Akaka-Inouye amendment.

"I will tell the senator from Hawai'i, we will continue to support him in his efforts to getting his measure to the floor," Daschle said.

Clyde Namu'o, administrator of the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said it was not yet clear whether the Frist maneuver was targeting the Hawaiian recognition bill specifically. "What's a question for most of us is why Senator Frist closed off the amendments," Namu'o said.

Haunani Apoliona, who chairs the OHA board of trustees, took some encouragement from supportive comments made from the floor by other senators.

She also said she didn't see the failure of the amendment as a death knell for the bill. "This is where political intrigue begins," Apoliona said. "This is a bipartisan effort.

"It's not over until the gavel comes down."

Advertiser staff writer Vicki Viotti contributed to this report.