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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Akaka bill won’t ensure senator re-election

By David Shapiro

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka swings a political sword that cuts both ways when he makes his Akaka bill for Native Hawaiian recognition a central issue in defending his Senate seat against U.S. Rep. Ed Case.

Akaka argues that if he loses to Case and the Akaka bill carries over into next year, it will likely die because the support of many senators is tied to their personal relationships with him.

His backers have picked up the theme, saying the 81-year-old lawmaker deserves the chance to see his signature piece of legislation to fruition.

The problem is that a month before Case announced he would challenge Akaka in the Democratic primary, Akaka said he'd received a commitment from Senate leaders to work for a vote on his bill this year — presumably making it a settled issue in the next Congress.

Why the shifting appraisals of the bill's chances as the political landscape changes? Has Akaka now thrown in the towel three months into the year after expressing so much optimism as 2006 began?

Akaka is running for re-election on his personal relationships in the Senate and his claim of effectiveness in using them for Hawai'i's benefit.

But the Akaka bill has hardly been an example of senatorial efficacy on the part of either Akaka or senior Hawai'i Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

Akaka proposed the bill six years ago to give Hawaiians political standing to counter the U.S. Supreme Court's Rice v. Cayetano decision, which cast a legal cloud over Hawaiians-only programs such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Hawaiian Home Lands and Kamehameha Schools.

Since then, the measure has languished while a steady stream of new lawsuits has increased the threat to Hawaiian programs.

Republican opponents have used arcane Senate rules to stall the bill.

Akaka and Inouye could have retaliated by using the same rules to tie up pet legislation of those blocking the measure, but instead have taken a hat-in-hand approach that has come up empty.

They've amended many Hawaiian rights out of the bill in a fruitless attempt to mollify Republicans, negotiated unproductively with Senate leaders for floor time and traded their backing for controversial energy bills opposed by other Democrats to get a vote that never came.

The bill that Akaka now talks about carrying over to the next Congress was supposed to have been voted on no later than Aug. 7, 2005, under a broken deal he and Inouye reached with Senate leaders after they supported the 2004 Republican energy bill.

If the Akaka bill hasn't passed by election time, it will be a challenge for Akaka to credibly argue that Case, who supports the measure, would have done any worse in moving the legislation.

As a practical matter, if the Hawaiian recognition bill doesn't pass this year, its chances become increasingly dim in a new Congress no matter who is senator.

The process would have to start over with new hearings, possibly new committee leadership and the start of a presidential election cycle that always distracts Congress from less-pressing legislation.

The opposition has only grown as time has passed — aided in no small part by Akaka's poor choice of words in a national interview that gave adversaries ammunition to claim his bill could lead to Hawai'i's secession from the union.

Locally, some support for this bill among Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians alike has turned to indifference or worse as the matter has dragged on and the Akaka bill has been endlessly amended.

So before Akaka tries to turn the election on this issue, he needs to consider the very real risk that it won't necessarily turn things his way.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.