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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Senate delays Akaka bill debate

By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Staff Writer


WASHINGTON — Hawai'i's top political leaders worked behind the scenes yesterday in a collective push to get a vote on a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill in the U.S. Senate.

Gov. Linda Lingle met with officials at the White House and started talking with Republican senators whose support is critical to the bill's passage. U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, and U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, pressed Republican leaders to bring the bill to the floor.

Debate was expected to begin yesterday but was delayed because Republicans had not agreed on potential amendments. Aides to Hawai'i lawmakers said debate could begin today.

Conservative Republicans have blocked the bill in the Senate since 2000, but Republican leaders have promised Akaka and Inouye a vote by August.

"The future of Hawai'i's people, and my grandchildren, are in this bill," Akaka said.

The bill would recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people, similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives, and create a process for Hawaiians to form their own government.

State Attorney General Mark Bennett and staff for Hawai'i lawmakers are talking with the U.S. Department of Justice about changes to the bill that might be enough to get the administration's support. Among the stickiest issues, according to people familiar with the talks, is whether the bill should preclude or limit the statute of limitations on financial claims by Hawaiians against the U.S. government. The bill now contains a 20-year limit on claims, which the Justice Department believes is too long.

The potential changes likely would be added as the debate unfolds in the Senate.

But the fundamental objection by conservatives is that the bill would separate people based on race. U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and other opponents have questioned whether the bill is constitutional, a theme also being crystallized among Republicans in the U.S. House.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution is holding a hearing on the bill today, which might reveal the extent of the opposition in the House.

"We'll have to explain that it's not race-based. It's based upon the Constitution. It's based upon history," Inouye said.

The jostling that delayed the bill yesterday was not unusual in the Senate, where rules and tradition give individual senators the power to put a hold on legislation. Senators also often try to attach unrelated items to bills moving toward a vote. Republicans apparently are considering several amendments, including an apology to American Indians.

Akaka, normally congenial, was so frustrated he considered holding up other legislation in retaliation. He said Republicans have made a commitment to bring the bill to the floor.

"We're still striving for that agreement," Akaka said.

As the Akaka bill gains more national exposure, powerful voices are getting involved.

In a coup for the bill's supporters, Viet Dinh, a former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department under President Bush, has written a paper arguing that Congress has both the moral and legal authority to enact the bill.

Dinh, an architect of the USA Patriot Act after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, wrote that the Constitution gives Congress the power to legislate regarding Indian tribes, and that power extends to Native Hawaiians.

"The answer to both questions is yes, especially given the moral and legal obligations the United States acquired for overthrowing the then-sovereign kingdom of Hawai'i in 1893," Dinh wrote.

The paper, prepared for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, will be given to House lawmakers at the subcommittee hearing today.

On the other side, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, an influential conservative group, called the bill "seriously flawed" yesterday and urged his supporters to ask senators to oppose it.

"The notion that Congress should just create a Native Hawaiian 'tribe' in order to treat them 'the same' as American Indians and Alaska Natives is against our history," Perkins wrote in his Washington Update.

The coordinated effort by Lingle, the congressional delegation, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and Mayor Mufi Hannemann has given Hawai'i a presence here this week, as both the Akaka bill and the future of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard are in question.

Aides to Hawai'i lawmakers say Lingle's role could be pivotal on the Akaka bill, since Republicans control the White House and Congress. The governor hopes to meet with Republican senators today at their caucus, in addition to her talks with individual senators.

"I tell them that the Akaka bill is a simple matter of justice and fairness for the Native Hawaiian people, to allow them to begin a process that they can set up an entity to make certain that they have authority over their own lands and their own resources," Lingle said.

The Bush administration has not taken a stand on the bill and Lingle, in the past, has said that Hawai'i lawmakers had asked her to at least keep the administration neutral.

U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, said a signal from the White House would break Republican opposition. "A clear expression of support from the White House is the best of all worlds," he said.


The Akaka bill is known formally as S 147, or the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005.

In the U.S. Senate: Debate may begin on the floor today, continuing intermittently.

In the U.S. House: The House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution will hold a hearing today at 2 p.m. EDT (8 a.m., Hawai'i time). The topic: "Can Congress Create a Race-Based Government? The Constitutionality of HR 309 and S 147, the 'Native Hawaiian Government Re-organization Act of 2005.' "