Vote on Akaka bill expected next year
By Frank Oliveri and Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writers
WASHINGTON A measure to allow federal recognition of Native Hawaiians is dead for this year, but Hawai'i's senators yesterday secured a promise from Republican leaders to let the so-called Akaka bill come to the Senate floor for a vote next year.
|History of Hawaiian recognition bill
Hawai'i's congressional delegation has worked since 2000 to get a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill through Congress. The announcement yesterday by the Senate leadership that a Senate vote on the bill would happen next year is a potential breakthrough for supporters.
Here is a look at what needs to happen for the bill to become law, and how versions of the bill have fared in Congress.
Hawai'i lawmakers would have to introduce the Akaka bill again next session. It would likely have hearings before House and Senate committees before votes in either chamber.
Republican leaders in the Senate have promised a floor vote on the Akaka bill, a key concession since it has been Republican lawmakers who have blocked the bill with procedural moves in the past. Hawai'i lawmakers would need a majority vote to prevail or 60 votes to break a filibuster.
If approved by the House and Senate, the bill would go to the president for his signature or veto. President Bush has not taken a position on the bill. Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee, supports the bill.
In 2000, the House approved the Akaka bill, the only time either chamber has approved the bill, but Republicans in the Senate refused to add it to other legislation in the final days of the session.
In 2001, the bill emerged from committee but was blocked by Republicans in the Senate and died at the end of the 2002 session.
In 2003, the Akaka bill was passed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee but was blocked by Republicans.
In 2004, the bill was passed by the House Resources Committee. Hawai'i lawmakers dropped their efforts to pass it this session in exchange for a promise from Senate leaders that a floor vote would be held next year.
Sens. Dan Inouye and Daniel Akaka say they are certain that they have the votes they need to pass the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act.
"While I am disappointed that we could not reach agreement for consideration of (the bill) prior to the adjournment of the 108th Congress, I feel good about the commitment made today that we will no longer endure the procedural shenanigans that have prevented the Senate's consideration of this bill for the past five years," Akaka said yesterday.
After Akaka and Inouye cleared a key hurdle on the Native Hawaiian bill, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., pledged to ensure that the Akaka bill would be considered no later than Aug. 7, 2005.
Haunani Apoliona, who chairs the board of trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said the latest news on the bill gives OHA more time register Native Hawaiians so that they all may play a role in self-determination.
"It is a quantum leap forward. I think we were all anxious that it would happen this year. It is sort of mixed feelings. Given this kind of commitment that is published, I would think our senators will have an easier time moving it as a stand-alone bill next year."
Members of the Senate left yesterday to campaign for next month's elections. Congress will have a post-election session but only take up unfinished business such as spending bills.
The bill, which would begin the process for Native Hawaiian recognition as indigenous people, has been pending in Congress in one form or another since 2000. The stumbling block has been getting the measure through the Senate, where this year it has been held up by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and others concerned about whether it would sanction race-based preferences.
In exchange for the Hawai'i senators' support of a package of 32 bills from the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Inouye and Akaka received public support from Kyl and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the energy committee, on the Native Hawaiian legislation. The energy committee bills passed the Senate by a voice vote late Sunday.
"I would express publicly my personal commitment to assist in (an) effort to ensure that no more procedural roadblocks would be thrown in the way of that legislation or a final vote," Kyl said on the Senate floor yesterday about the Native Hawaiian bill. "I will indeed do that and encourage all my colleagues to work with us toward that end."
Akaka said it was important to get commitments from Kyl, Frist and Domenici because he believes there are a few other GOP senators who are hostile to the bill. Any senator can hold up the measure with procedural tactics next year, just like Kyl did this year.
Under Senate rules, the Akaka bill would need to be introduced again at the start of the new Congress that convenes in January and considered again by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The House also would have to approve the measure.
"I am pleased by the agreement we have reached, and I look forward to a full and robust debate in the United States Senate on this important bill, which, I believe, has much support from my colleagues," said Inouye, the top Democrat on the Indian Affairs committee.
Inouye recently attached the Akaka bill to a Senate appropriations bill, but he said there is no longer a need and he must take action to withdraw it. Both Hawai'i senators placed great importance on having the bill stand on its own and not attached to any other measure.
"As a result of this agreement, there is no longer the need to have the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act attached to a Senate appropriations measure, which I had publicly promised to do to advance the measure this session," Inouye said.
Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, already has said he would support the Akaka bill. Interior Secretary Gale Norton helped in structuring the bill.
"I am confident in the leadership's commitment," Akaka said.
The reaction to yesterday's news was mixed in Hawai'i. Apoliona and Clyde Namu'o, OHA administrator, agreed that the progress of the bill also may hinge on the presidential election. An administration led by Kerry may make passage of the bill easier, Namu'o said.
He also said delaying the bill until next year will allow more time for the registration of Native Hawaiians who want to participate in a self-governing body, an enrollment initiative dubbed Kau Inoa. The enrollment, he said "means that Hawaiians are absolutely serious about moving self-determination forward."
Opponents of the bill said the Senate action will allow them to regroup.
"The good thing for us is we have a little time to have an impact on what the new proposed federal recognition bill will look like," said Kai'opua Fyfe, a board member of Koani Foundation, a Kaua'i-based Native Hawaiian unity organization.
Fyfe's group prefers an approach to independence that does not position Hawaiians as "wards" of the U.S. Department of Interior.
"The whole federal recognition process is sick. It's not an area we want to come into," he said. "It's something that's beyond repair."
Another independence activist, Poka Laenui, called the Akaka bill "an opening of another door. Maybe I don't want to go down that door, but other Hawaiians may want to choose it."
Gov. Linda Lingle, who has brought her support for the bill before the Bush administration, wrote to Kyl and other senators last Wednesday asking for their support. She wrote that the bill "affords Native Hawaiians the same opportunity that America's other indigenous, native people have the right to determine their future and the government-to-government relationships that reflect their status as sovereigns."
Micah Kane, who directs the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and who also has been involved in talks with the administration and Republican lawmakers, said there is some disappointment the Akaka bill will not be approved this year but he recognized that progress had been made with Senate opponents.
"I feel that we were successful at communicating to them the constitutionality of the bill and the righteousness of the bill to the Hawai'i people," Kane said.
Staff writer Derrick DePledge contributed to this report. Reach Vicki Viotti at email@example.com or 525-8053.