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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, April 1, 2005

Akaka bill may hinge on Bush

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i's congressional delegation yesterday predicted that the long-stalled bill for federal recognition of Native Hawaiians finally would clear the Senate this year but that a nod from the White House is needed to get it through the House.

Daniel Akaka

U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye and U.S. Reps. Neil Abercrombie and Ed Case took questions from the state Senate and House Hawaiian affairs committee during an informational briefing that drew a standing-room-only crowd to a state Capitol conference room.

Lawmakers called the briefing to get an update on the "Akaka bill." U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, its namesake and lead proponent, had meetings on Maui yesterday and declined the invitation. A second briefing with state officials discussing the effects of the bill will be scheduled later this session, said state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha).

No questions were taken from spectators, some of whom transmitted their silent endorsement or opposition by flashing placards with slogans of support or scorn for the current version of the measure, Senate Bill 147.

The briefing did air questions from state lawmakers about how the bill would affect non-Hawaiians, including worries that the measure could produce an "us or them" tension among residents here.

Although he acknowledged the need to deal with such public concerns, Inouye kept his focus on charting the bill's course through the Senate, which he predicted would pass the measure. Senate leaders promised the delegation last session that the bill would get a vote on the Senate floor by Aug. 7, before a summer recess.

"I'm convinced that we will have that vote, and I'm convinced that we will prevail by a hefty margin," Inouye said.

Abercrombie said he then would introduce the Senate's approved bill in the House and hoped it could have its first hearings in the first weeks of September, after the House returned from break. But the Republican majority shies away from tangling with the Bush administration, he said, and is unlikely to let the bill pass without a signal that the president would sign it.

"The question is not whether we can pass it out of the committees, but it's whether or not the Bush administration will look favorably on the legislation," Abercrombie said.

He reiterated the delegation's latest position, that the state's Republican governor is best positioned to lobby for Bush's support. After the briefing, two members of Gov. Linda Lingle's administration — Attorney General Mark Bennett and Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman Micah Kane — said the discussions they've had with the president and his administration have been positive.

The delegation has asserted that an attempt to pass legislation supporting federal recognition last session was spiked because of a thumbs-down from the White House, but Bennett maintained that his contacts within the White House say no such signal was sent.

"The (Bush) administration has expressed no opposition to this bill," Bennett said. "They're not shy about telling if they have a problem with the bill."

State lawmakers, meanwhile, kept an eye on the future impact of the bill, looking beyond the measure's procedures for organizing a Native Hawaiian government to anticipate how this new political entity would interact with non-Hawaiians.

"There's a tendency to have an 'us and them' perspective," said state Rep. Lyla Berg, D-18th (Kahala, 'Aina Haina, Kuli'ou'ou). "We can move into an era with fear, we can move into the same space with fascination. How can we deal with the fear?"

State Rep. Cindy Evans, D-7th (N. Kona, S. Kohala), echoed some of this sentiment, asking about various possible scenarios. What would happen, for example, if Native Hawaiians wanted to be citizens of their own government but not the United States?

"I don't think the U.S. would provide the authorization to the sovereign nation to allow that," Inouye answered.

The delegates said they believe most such scenarios are extreme and that the Native Hawaiian entity could only negotiate the measure of sovereignty that the federal government would approve. Most likely, they said, the new government would focus on the job agencies such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands do now: managing land and cash assets. Extensive independent privileges are an improbable outcome, Inouye said.

"If the negotiations are foolish enough to say Hawaiians would not have the same responsibility as everyone else, then it would be an 'us or them' situation," he said.

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.