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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Akaka bill could falter, senator warns

By Derrick DePledge and Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writers

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka said yesterday he would continue to ask for a Senate vote on a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill this year, but if there is no vote soon and he is not re-elected, he believes the bill's chances of passage could be in doubt.

The state's congressional delegation and Gov. Linda Lingle have united behind the bill, known as the Akaka bill, which would recognize Hawaiians as an indigenous people with the right to form their own government.

Akaka acknowledged that U.S. Rep. Ed Case, his opponent in the Democratic primary for the Senate, also supports the bill. But the senator, who is of Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, said many of the personal commitments are to him.

"I would think that the bill would not go," Akaka said in response to a question during an interview with The Advertiser's editorial board and reporters. "It has been my bill. I've been the one that has been pushing it. Also, all the commitments, well, many commitments that have been made have been made to me. And so when I go what happens to those commitments? That's what I see as something that we would lose a lot in.

"Also commitments from Hawaiian organizations, as well. As you know, not all of them support the bill, but most of them do and are really supporting it heavily. But I would think that we would lose all of that."

Case strongly disagreed with Akaka's assessment. "I believe federal recognition is vital, not only for Native Hawaiians, but for all of Hawai'i," the Case said.

Case said the future of the bill in the Senate, where it has been stalled for six years, rests more with the power of U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, who is third in seniority. He said he would work with Inouye if elected to the Senate and back the bill aggressively.

"I'm going to bring the same energy to it that I brought to it in the House," Case said.

Akaka's comments yesterday are the first indication that the Senate campaign may crack some of the unity within the delegation. Akaka, Case, Inouye and U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie may differ on national issues but usually function as a team for Hawai'i to maximize their power in Washington, D.C.

In the three years Case has been in the House, there has been only one public disagreement among the delegation on a significant Hawai'i issue. In July 2003, Case proposed legislation to exempt Hawai'i from the federal Jones Act, which requires ships operating between U.S. ports to be U.S. flagged and crewed. The congressman argues that it discourages competition and has led to higher costs for consumers, but the rest of the delegation believes the act ensures the reliable shipping of goods to the Islands.

Both Akaka and Case have said over the past few days that they would continue to be cordial toward each other and work together for Hawai'i in Congress during the campaign. But Akaka's belief that Hawaiian recognition could depend on his re-election could add more tension to what already is a sensitive issue in the Islands and Washington.

A Senate vote on the Akaka bill was expected in September but was delayed so senators could respond to Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf Coast. Akaka said he would ask the Senate's Republican leaders to schedule a vote as soon as possible. The bill would create a process for Hawaiians to form their own government, similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives. But the bill has been opposed by conservatives who believe it is unconstitutional because it would give privileges to people based on race.

Abercrombie has said he is waiting for Senate action before asking the House's Republican leaders to hear the bill again. The House approved an earlier version of the bill in 2000.

Haunani Apoliona, the chairwoman of the board of trustees for the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said she hopes the bill does not become a campaign issue. "It's a vote in the Senate that we hope to have soon," she said. "We would hope that the bill is done and finished by the 2006 elections."

Although it is known as the Akaka bill, the lobbying in Washington has been a collaborative effort between the delegation, the Lingle administration and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Akaka has helped secure commitments from several senators and is the face of the bill nationally, yet many believe it will not advance without a combination of Inouye's clout in the Senate and the Republican governor's influence with the Bush administration.

But as the only Hawaiian in the delegation, Akaka is seen as more culturally and symbolically attached to the bill's success.

Tony Sang, chairman of the State Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations, said he recognizes that Case has been a supporter of the bill. "But this brings on a different light, now, since he's announced his candidacy for the Senate," he said.

Dexter Ka'iama, a member of Hui Pu, an umbrella group for organizations that oppose the Akaka bill, said a Case victory might hurt the bill's chances. Akaka "is the one who actually proposed the bill and is the originator of the bill, even though from my perspective, Dan Inouye had quite a bit to do with this bill," he said. "To that extent, it might seem that it might lose a little bit of its momentum because both Akaka and Inouye are senior senators."

Jon Osorio, director of the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa, also has opposed the Akaka bill but does not believe the Senate campaign will have much of an influence. "I don't think Case's entry into (a race against Akaka) changes anything," Osorio said. "I don't think it makes federal recognition more likely or less likely."

But Osorio, like several other Hawaiians interviewed over the past few days, believes the Hawaiian community will support Akaka over Case. Several Hawaiians have said they are heartbroken and disappointed by Case's challenge.

"If he thought one of our senior senators was going to die, he could have stayed in the House of Representatives, and ran for (Senate) when one of them did. He, himself, could be hit by a bus tomorrow and to focus on their age as the reason for his ambition I'm just so disappointed," said Beadie Kanahele Dawson, an attorney.

Reach Derrick DePledge at ddepledge@honoluluadvertiser.com and Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.