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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 8:09 a.m., Thursday, June 8, 2006

Akaka bill fails to move to Senate floor debate

By Dennis Camire
Advertiser Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The Senate voted today to reject an effort to bring the Native Hawaiian bill to the floor for debate and a vote.

The 56-41 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to free the stalled bill, which conservative Republicans have kept from floor consideration since last summer. Three senators did not vote.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, author and chief sponsor of the bill, said before the vote that if it failed to progress to the floor, he'd try again in the current legislative session.

"The bill still stands except that we cannot bring the bill to the floor," he said. "This is what has happened for the past six years."

But even if Akaka gets another chance and is successful, legislative time is running out to get the bill through the House. If it doesn't receive approvals from both chambers, supporters would have to start all over again when a newly elected Congress convenes in January.

The bill, originally introduced in 2000, would create a process for a Native Hawaiian government to be recognized by the federal government, similar to the political status given to Native American and Alaskan Native tribes.

In last minute debate on the measure, Akaka asked senators to allow the bill to be debated and voted on.

"Don't make your decision based on someone else's characterization of the bill," he said. "The people of Hawai'i, native and non-native, deserve more than that. Give us the courtesy of at least a debate on this bill.

But opponents hammered at the bill, saying it would create an unconstitutional, race-based government.

"Nearly every time our government has taken race into account when dealing with its citizens, the effects have been detrimental if not devastating," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the assistant majority leader. "Unfortunately, today the Senate is considering a bill that would wreck the progress we have made."

McConnell said the bill "violates the letter and spirit" of the Constitution.

"The way this bill tries to maneuver around this unconstitutionality is by ... creating a new tribe of Native Hawaiians," he said. "But this new tribe is a shell game. As recently as 1998, the state of Hawai'i itself acknowledged that the tribal concept has no historical basis in Hawai'i."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Congress couldn't "simply and arbitrarily" create an Indian tribe where none existed before.

"The Constitution does not authorize Congress to make Indian tribes out of subsets of Americans who have no relationship whatsoever to an Indian tribe," he said.