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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Akaka bill will get hearing and a vote, key senator says

By Frank Oliveri
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — There will be hearings early this year and a Senate vote on federal recognition of Native Hawaiians, despite opposition to the bill by new Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz.

A spokeswoman for the Arizona senator said yesterday that McCain's opposition to the measure known as the Akaka bill does not conflict with a promise made last year by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and other leading Republicans to Sens. Dan Inouye and Daniel Akaka that the proposed legislation would get an up-or-down vote in the Senate in 2005.

"There will be a committee vote," said Andrea Jones, McCain's spokeswoman.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is expected to endorse the bill, which would then lead to a full vote in the Senate. The committee unanimously supported the measure last year.

The House easily passed the measure by voice vote last year.

The Akaka bill would begin the process for Native Hawaiians to be recognized by the U.S. government as an indigenous people. It would establish the beginnings of a framework for Native Hawaiian governance. That government would then be empowered to negotiate with the United States and Hawai'i over the disposition of Native Hawaiian assets.

McCain spoke out against the Akaka bill late last week, catching Hawai'i Democrats Inouye and Akaka by surprise, along with many in the Native Hawaiian community.

The clarifying comments from McCain's office came after a meeting between McCain and Inouye late Monday when the committee chairman's position was discussed. Jones would not go into specifics of the conversation between the two powerful senators. Inouye's office did not respond to several requests for comment.

McCain, who also chaired the Indian Affairs Committee in 1995 and 1996, has stated his opposition to the Akaka bill on other occasions. He has said he believes it was implicit when Hawai'i became a state in 1959 that Native Hawaiians would not receive the same status as American Indians.

Neal Milner, a political-science professor at the University of Hawai'i, said it had appeared that McCain would take issue on principle.

"I always thought part of the strategy was to keep this bill under the radar screen," Milner said. "You are trying to convince legislators that you think it is important, but if it becomes an issue of serious principle it might become a much more contentious issue in the Senate. This is another step in reducing the visibility."

The news that McCain would not use Senate rules to block the measure from reaching the full chamber was received with some relief. Akaka and Inouye both have said they have the votes needed to pass the bill, otherwise known as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act.

"Good news!" said Haunani Apoliona, chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. "Senator McCain is giving our issue the opportunity for fair debate and expression of the Congress."

Akaka, the bill's primary sponsor, was out of the country and could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Both Hawai'i senators have sought passage of the bill since 2000. But Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., used Senate rules to block the Akaka bill from a vote last year. Kyl and others in the Senate have voiced concerns that the bill would sanction race-based preferences, which they say would be unconstitutional.

Late last year, Inouye and Akaka secured promises from Frist, Kyl and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., then chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, that the bill would get its day on the Senate floor before Aug. 7.

In a brief exchange on the Senate floor on Oct. 11, Kyl and Domenici pledged their efforts to ensure that the Akaka bill "would be considered by this body."

In return, Inouye and Akaka promised not to push for the bill's passage as a rider on a massive spending bill late last year and also support 32 bills pending in the energy committee. Those bills from Domenici's committee passed by voice vote Oct. 10.

Already, embryonic efforts involving hundreds of Native Hawaiians are under way to determine how they would go about creating that government, Apoliona said.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is sponsoring an effort — called Kau Inoa — to register Native Hawaiians so that they may take part in the recognition process. More than 10,000 Native Hawaiians have been registered so far.

There are more than 400,000 Native Hawaiians living on the Hawaiian Islands and the U.S. Mainland, according to statistics from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Other Hawaiian organizations have stepped up efforts to educate Native Hawaiians about self-governance.

On Monday, the Interior Department began advertising for a program analyst to staff the federal office of Native Hawaiian Relations within the U.S. Interior Department. The office — approved by the Senate last year — is expected to oversee the legal relationship between Native Hawaiians and the U.S. government. The move is an important first step in the recognition process.