AKAKA BILL: AFTER THE DEFEAT
After bill fails, Akaka vows to try again
|Video: Residents discuss Hawaiian recognition|
|||Measure's rejection could open senator's fresh political wound|
|||Hawai'i takes consolation, satisfaction from vote|
|||How recognition might occur if measure is revived|
|||Residents react to Akaka bill defeat|
By Dennis Camire
Advertiser Washington Bureau
By Dennis Camire
WASHINGTON — While the long-stalled Native Hawaiian bill suffered a blow yesterday, with the Senate rejecting an effort to bring it to the floor, supporters vowed to keep up the battle.
"I'm going to continue to work on this," said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, chief sponsor of the bill. "If we don't bring it up again this year, I'll be here next year and offer the bill again."
In a written statement he said, "We must continue to move forward for Native Hawaiians, the people of Hawai'i and everyone in this country who believe that ours is a nation which treats all of its people with an equitable hand."
Haunani Apoliona, chairwoman of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said supporters were "not going to roll over and give up."
"This is the first time in six years that we got a vote," she said. "It's a setback and it's disappointing but it's not going to bring our efforts to an end."
In Honolulu, Gov. Linda Lingle suggested that the dilemmas faced by Hawaiian preference programs can be solved, possibly without federal recognition, and possibly outside of Capitol Hill entirely.
Lingle, who returned Wednesday from Washington, D.C., where she lobbied a number of Republican senators, said she spoke to Apoliona about some options.
"We started to look forward about steps we could take now to achieve what we were trying to through the Akaka bill, which was to protect all our existing programs that benefit Native Hawaiians as well as creating an entity that will be able to take control of the resources and assets of the Hawaiian people, specifically the Hawaiian home lands and the ceded land revenues," she said.
Asked if such goals could be achieved without federal legislation, she said: "We think that's a possibility and we're going to explore that, as well as future efforts on the federal level."
Lingle declined to offer specifics of what such efforts would entail, noting that Apoliona has asked for a meeting to explore the options.
'CAN GO NO FURTHER'
With last-minute aid from the White House, which announced late Wednesday it opposed the bill, conservative Republicans were able to turn back a strong bipartisan effort in the Senate yesterday to bring the bill to the floor over their objections for debate and a vote.
The final vote was 56-41, with 60 votes needed to have the bill brought to the floor.
"Today, the Senate stopped in its tracks legislation that would have, for the first time, created a new, sovereign government within our borders based solely upon race," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a leading opponent of the bill. "I'm very pleased the Senate sided with the Constitution."
And despite what supporters want to happen with the bill, the Senate leadership appears to believe the battle is over for this year.
"Regretfully, the (Native Hawaiian) bill can go no further in this Congress, thanks to the 11th-hour intervention and fear mongering by the Bush administration and his Department of Justice," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., also seemed to think the issue was over for this year.
"Sen. Frist made a commitment to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, and he has honored that commitment," said Matt Lehigh, spokesman for Frist.
But Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said it would be "premature" to call the bill — also known as the Akaka bill — dead for this session of Congress.
"There is always tomorrow," he said. "Given all the schemes used to derail the Akaka bill, I will not at this time reveal what we might do to advance this important piece of legislation for the 'First People' of Hawai'i."
Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, a sponsor of the Native Hawaiian bill in the House, said he already was looking for a way to bring the bill forward, although it was late in this year's congressional session for something to happen.
But Abercrombie said that since the objections were now known, it could be possible to address them in a way that could win over some of the opponents.
"I've got some ideas on that and will see how that plays," he said. "But first we've got to go back to our constituency, explain ... and see if we can get a consensus on it and come back."
LET RESIDENTS VOTE
One Republican sponsor of the bill, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, recognized that a major concern of opponents was whether the people of Hawai'i support the bill, said Chris Matthews, a spokesman for the senator.
Smith hopes that a new version of the bill would address those concerns by allowing the state's residents to vote on a Native Hawaiian government, Matthews said.
The current 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.
TOO LATE TO VOTE
In the final tally, 41 Republicans voted against the effort while 43 Democrats, 12 Republicans and one Independent voted for it. Two Democrats — Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia and Chuck E. Schumer of New York — were out of town and didn't vote.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a co-sponsor of the bill, didn't vote although he had voted on other legislation 45 minutes earlier. Kevin Bishop, his spokesman said the senator "did not make it to the floor in time to vote."
But it could be a sign of the pressure that was being put on Republicans by party leadership and the White House not to support the bill.
The vote came during a week that saw Senate Majority Leader Frist bring several measures to the floor that appealed to the party's conservative core: a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and a bill to permanently repeal the estate tax.
Although both measures failed to gain enough votes, the objective was to stir up the conservative Republican base to turn out to vote this year and divert attention from less flattering issues such as the Iraq war and rising gasoline prices.
Appealing to that conservative base also could be part of the effort to block the Native Hawaiian bill from coming to a vote.
Among those efforts was a Justice Department letter released late Wednesday that said the Bush administration "strongly opposes" the Native Hawaiian bill.
The letter said that given the substantial differences between Native Hawaiians and federally recognized Indian tribes, it would be "inappropriate" and raise "difficult constitutional issues" to give Native Hawaiians tribal recognition.
'A KICK IN THE TEETH'
Abercrombie said the letter was a legislative blow in that supporters, including Republican Gov. Lingle, had long sought a White House position on the issue but it showed up only on the eve of the Senate vote, leaving little time to respond.
"It's as much a kick in the teeth of the governor as it is to those of us who were trying to pass the legislation in the Congress," he said.
Inouye said Republicans who voted to bring the bill up for debate "were courageous in standing up to intense pressure from the White House and Republican leadership."
The vote came after an intense week of lobbying by the state's senators and other bill supporters. Some of it paid off despite the pressure.
For example, Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both of Maine, had been undecided but voted for the bill.
Other previously undecided Republican senators, such as Sam Brownback of Kansas and George V. Voinovich of Ohio, voted against the bill.
Chris Paulitz, a spokesman for Voinovich, said the senator had "deep reservations about the wisdom of creating separate governments for certain groups based on race.
"Allowing for the creation of such an entity is contrary to our nation's commitment to the elimination of racial distinctions in the law," Paulitz said.Staff writer Gordon Pang contributed to this report.
Reach Dennis Camire at email@example.com.