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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, March 10, 2005

Akaka bill clears panel in Senate

By Dennis Camire
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The Senate Indian Affairs Committee yesterday unanimously approved a bill formally recognizing Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people.

Daniel Akaka

The bill now goes to the full Senate for consideration. It would be the first time legislation seeking federal recognition for Hawaiians would receive a full Senate vote, although an earlier version passed the House in 2000.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, lead sponsor of the bill, said an agreement was reached last year for the Senate to consider the bill no later than Aug. 7.

Both Akaka and Sen. Dan K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, said they would work with the Senate leadership about scheduling the debate sooner.

"The problem is that we have some heavy legislation to deal with," said Akaka, mention-

ing proposed Social Security changes, bankruptcy legislation and the budget debate.

Gov. Linda Lingle yesterday received confirmation that two Republican senators, U.S. Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have pledged to co-sponsor the bill.

The enlistment of GOP support is very helpful because the bill could pass with as few as four Republicans voting for it in the Senate, said Clyde Namu'o, administrator of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

"I think our senators are clear that the way this would work is 51 votes is all it would take to get it passed," he said. "There are 47 Democrats, and the Democratic caucus is already supporting the bill. That means you need four Republicans."

But in Washington, both of Hawai'i's senators also indicated that final adoption by the full Senate could be difficult.

Inouye said that despite last year's agreement, he would still expect those opposed to the bill to use any means at their disposal to block it.

A companion measure also needs House approval.

The Senate committee's unanimous voice vote came after it changed the bill to ensure that Native Hawaiians generally would not be eligible to receive federal money now going to programs and services for Indians and Indian tribes.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, said the change addressed his concern about the possible impact that the 400,000 Native Hawaiians in the United States, once they are federally recognized, could have on federal programs for Indians.

"Federal funding for Indians is insufficient to cover existing beneficiaries and (the bill) could result in as many as 400,000 people being recognized as indigenous native people," McCain said.

"I understand that it was not the purpose of this legislation to allow Native Hawaiians to access federal programs designed for Indians and I appreciate the (bill's) sponsors willingness to clarify this."

Inouye said the change only clarified what the bill's proponents had assured other lawmakers all along.

"It's nothing new," Inouye said. "We have been assuring everyone that this measure will not in any way reduce funding for Indians. We just put it in writing — that is all."

Native Hawaiians already have federal programs for such services as health, education and housing, which are paid for separately.

Not everyone was elated with the bill's progress. In Hawai'i, Maui Loa leads a group of people of at least half Hawaiian ancestry, known as the Hou Hawaiian Band. He maintained that these Hawaiians were federally recognized in the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921 and that the Akaka bill does not protect their interests.

"We want the dignity of America to stand by our side," he said. "If it really becomes law, we're still that little group determined to move forward. And we will move forward."

The legislation, originally introduced in 2000, would lead to the U.S. government's recognition of Native Hawaiians in the same way that it recognizes American Indians and Native Alaskans. The measure — also known as the Akaka bill — would create a framework for Native Hawaiian governance with authority to negotiate with the United States and Hawai'i over disposition of Native Hawaiian assets.

"I think it costs our nation very little to recognize Native Hawaiians the way they should be recognized," said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., a committee member. "It's long overdue."

Lingle, who testified for the bill before the committee last week, said the measure is vital to the survival of the state's host culture and character, and for parity in federal policy for America's native peoples.

"The collaborative effort on behalf of this legislation has been a unifying force in our state," Lingle said. "I now look forward to the next step when the bill comes to the Senate floor for a vote."

Akaka said he was pleased the committee had approved the bill for the fourth time since it was originally introduced in 2000.

"This bill is important to everyone in Hawai'i because it provides the structured process we need to begin to resolve the long-standing issues resulting from the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai'i," he said. "This bill will help us to resolve these issues and move forward as a state."

Staff writer Vicki Viotti contributed to this report.