A vote scheduled for today on whether the Akaka bill will get a full airing on the Senate floor has been postponed indefinitely as Congress focuses on the needs of Gulf Coast residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, lead author of the Akaka bill, was informed of the decision by Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., when Akaka returned to Washington yesterday, said Donalyn Dela Cruz, Akaka's spokeswoman.
"Congress will only deal with the state of emergency (due to the hurricane) and nothing else until that is completed," Dela Cruz said.
Akaka understands the decision to delay the vote on the federal recognition bill for Hawaiians and "is completely supportive of the people in the Gulf region getting what they need and more," Dela Cruz said.
In a statement issued by his Washington office, Akaka said he understood "the extremity of this state of emergency" left by the storm.
"It is of the utmost importance that this emergency be addressed immediately," Akaka said. "I look forward to the cloture vote occurring as soon as possible."
Dela Cruz said there was no discussion between Frist and Akaka about when the cloture vote on the Akaka bill would take place.
"I'm not sure they got that far in their conversation," she said. "The focus for the entire Congress right now is the Gulf Coast."
Another closely watched piece of legislation, which would repeal the estate tax, also had been scheduled for debate today and has been taken off the agenda, Dela Cruz said.
Despite requests by some members of Congress last week to hold off on the cloture votes on the Akaka bill and the estate-tax bill, First had decided to keep both on today's calendar through the weekend, Dela Cruz said.
On Thursday, Congress voted in emergency session to approve $10.2 billion in federal aid to the Gulf region at the request of President Bush.
A successful cloture petition, which would require the votes of 60 of the 100 senators, would force a debate and vote in the Senate on the Akaka bill, which has been delayed by GOP senators.
The Akaka bill, also known as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005, creates a process that would eventually lead to the establishment of a Native Hawaiian government that would be recognized by the U.S. government, similar to the political status given to Native Americans and Alaska natives.
Supporters say the Akaka bill would help to right the wrong of the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and that it is necessary to fight off the legal challenges against programs set up to help Hawaiians.
Opponents say the bill creates a separate government entity that is race-based and therefore unconstitutional. Some Native Hawaiian groups also oppose the bill, saying it does not go far enough.
Attorney H. William Burgess, an opponent of the bill, called the delay good news.
"We'll use any delay that happens well," Burgess said. "We'll spend the time fruitfully, getting more people more information about the consequences of the bill. It's just an opportunity to get Congress and the public better educated about what the bill would do."
Haunani Apoliona, chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs board of trustees, said OHA recognizes the need to make hurricane relief the priority.
Also yesterday, labor leaders representing more than 100,000 members statewide gathered at 'Iolani Palace to show their support for the bill's passage.
Participants included members of the state AFL-CIO, ILWU Local 142, Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii State Teachers Association and Hawaii Carpenters Union.
"The fight that native Hawaiians are in right now for recognition in a lot of ways is equal to what workers fight for every day on the work site: the fight for recognition in the workplace, the fight for dignity and respect," said Harold Dias, president of the state AFL-CIO, which represents 68 unions statewide.
Labor leaders pointed to statistics showing that the federal government provides $70 million a year in programs that benefit native Hawaiians. Those programs, along with the homestead program, OHA and Kamehameha Schools, are at risk, union officials said.