Akaka bill has votes to pass, Inouye says
|•||The Akaka bill What would it mean for Hawaii?|
By Dennis Camire
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON A bill recognizing Native Hawaiians could come up for a Senate vote as soon as the week of July 18-22, and Hawai'i's two senators said yesterday they believe there are enough votes for it to pass.
"It's supposed to come up," U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye said. "We'll have a majority."
In addition to Inouye, key senators are predicting they'll have the votes to pass the legislation, with six Republican senators joining 44 Democrats in support.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, the bill's chief sponsor and namesake, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist referred to a commitment he made last year to schedule a vote before Aug. 7 and said the only time left was in July.
"They were debating whether we should have the first week or the second week," Akaka said. "The leader (Frist) even asked me and I said sooner rather than later in the month."
Akaka's bill picked up additional Republican support yesterday with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., saying he will vote for it on the floor.
McCain, who had raised questions about the bill in the past, said he will vote for the bill primarily because it has the support of so many Hawai'i officials, including Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
"Here in Washington, it's hard for us to go against the view of the governor, the Legislature Republican and Democrat the senators and the congressmen," said McCain, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
The legislation, originally introduced in 2000, calls for the federal government to recognize Native Hawaiians in the same way that it recognizes American Indians and Native Alaskans.
The measure would create a framework for Native Hawaiian governance, which would be able to negotiate with the United States and Hawai'i over disposition of Native Hawaiian assets.
Richard Rowland, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said he was surprised by McCain's support of the Akaka bill.
"It certainly sounds like he's like many others that need a little education on the bill and what it says," Rowland said. "It would seem to me that as a senator, he should be concerned about the constitutionality (of the bill). Is it constitutional and is it good for the United States?"
Rowland added: "I think maybe we better see about getting him better educated."
The institute, Rowland said, does not know if the bill has enough votes for passage this summer but is not counting supporters and opponents. While he and other institute members are bothered by many aspects of the bill, it is not lobbying to defeat it, he said.
"Our main thrust here is education," he said. "We want to make sure this gets full disclosure. We don't think the opposing side has been aired, hardly at all."
For instance, when Hawai'i became a state, he said, there was a vote among residents. "Here, they're talking about starting a complete, separate sovereign entity without a vote of the people, any of the people."
Rowland said the institute "would be pleased with a delay in the vote until there was more time for discussing."
With McCain, the bill has six Republican votes. The other five Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Norm Coleman of Minnesota are co-sponsors of the bill.
With the backing of all 44 Democratic senators and the one independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont the bill would have at least 51 votes when it gets to the floor.
Akaka said he was confident that the entire Democratic caucus would vote for the bill, since none have said they are not backing it. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also told the Democratic caucus yesterday that he expects them to support the bill, Akaka said.
Still, opposition remains from Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Kyl, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee and a long-time opponent of the Akaka bill, issued a report last week saying the legislation would create a race-based government for Native Hawaiians and promotes "racial division and ethnic separatism."
Smith, of Oregon, warned that Kyl is "a senator of genuine influence," but he added that he believes the bill will pass.
"But I think Jon Kyl has just begun working on it so I don't know how successful he will be," Smith said. "My own position on it is that the Hawaiians are not unlike Native Americans of North America and it costs us very little to treat them as they would like to be treated."
Inouye, Akaka, Stevens and other supporters of the bill said they doubted Kyl could prevail on the Senate floor and block passage.
"I still think we could do it," Inouye said.
Stevens said he believes the opponents have misunderstood what the bill does.
"It really isn't a sovereignty bill," said Stevens, a long-time supporter. "It's a bill to give people recognition and it could lead later to a sovereignty approach if Congress wants to go that far."
Lingle spokesman Russell Pang said the governor "appreciates the ongoing support of Sen. McCain on this issue that is important not just to Native Hawaiians, but all the people of our state."
Last week, Lingle criticized Kyl for making what she described as "false" and "mistaken" statements, adding that she is considering going to Washington to lobby if the vote is close.
Pang yesterday said the governor had not yet decided whether to make another trip. Lingle testified for the bill before the Indian Affairs Committee in March, and also in 2003.
Surpassing 51 votes
Clyde Namu'o, administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, also was pleased by McCain's commitment.
"That's great because that will push it over the 51 mark," Namu'o said. It was assumed McCain would vote for the bill because it moved out of the Indian Affairs Committee the panel he chairs but until now supporters had no guarantee of that, Namu'o said.
Bill supporters want to be able to get 65 votes in the Senate to persuade the White House to support the measure, Namu'o said.
The Bush administration has to date been silent on the bill.
Advertiser staff writer Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report.