Akaka bill may be heard by Senate
By Dennis Camire
Advertiser Washington Bureau
By Dennis Camire
WASHINGTON — The Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill may come to the Senate floor this month, eight months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita forced the Senate to postpone a vote on it and six years after it was introduced.
But even if successful in the Senate, the bill must still clear the House and time is running out for approval in both chambers this year.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said he wanted to bring the bill up after clearing other legislation for Iraq war spending, immigration changes, small business health plans and medical malpractice caps.
Frist said the Native Hawaiian bill — also known as the Akaka bill after its prime sponsor, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i — would come up at about the same time the Senate will work on a permanent repeal of the estate tax.
Akaka said Frist "kind of assured me" that the bill's supporters would be able to try to bring up the bill after the Senate deals with the other bills.
"We don't have a definite time," Akaka said. "We're trying to bring it up before the Memorial Day recess."
Toni Lee, president of the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, said supporters of the bill are hopeful it will be heard soon despite the delays caused by the hurricanes and other issues.
Thurston Twigg-Smith, who has long opposed reparations or sovereignty for Hawaiians stemming from the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, said he is skeptical the bill will be heard this session. Akaka, who is running for re-election and faces a primary contest against Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, is simply politicking, Twigg-Smith said.
"Obviously, the senator believes that he better appear strong and favorable on this," said Twigg-Smith, who added that his gut feeling is that with so much going on in Washington, the bill won't be heard.
The bill, first introduced in 2000, would create a process for a Native Hawaiian government to be recognized by the U.S. government, similar to the political status given to Native Americans and Alaska natives.
A group of conservative Republican senators stalled the measure in July over concerns that it was unconstitutional because it would create a race-based government. Other objections also were raised, including the possibility that it would allow Native Hawaiians to become involved with gambling.
A procedural move — known as cloture — to force the bill to the floor despite the opponents' objections was postponed in September because the Senate needed to deal with disaster assistance.
Akaka said he hoped Republican opposition would not stop the bill from coming to the floor this time.
"But if someone on the other (Republican) side continues to find ways of holding it up, as they have now for six years, we may have to ask for a cloture vote to get over that," he said. "Right now, I feel optimistic that we can pass it."
At least 60 votes are required to bring the bill to the floor.
Akaka said he believed all 44 Democratic senators and the one independent — Sen. James Jeffords of Vermont — would support the bill, as would the bill's five Republican co-sponsors. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also said he supports the bill.
But the Republican conservatives who have blocked the bill are not showing signs of giving up.
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, is an opponent of the bill but said he would vote to bring it to the Senate floor for debate. He plans to offer a number of amendments.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who opposed the bill last summer, said he still had concerns about the measure's constitutionality because it created a race-based government. He remains opposed to it.
"I don't think short of a constitutional amendment, you can fix it," he said. "You can't ignore a constitutional violation, and that is really my objection."
Sen. Gordon H. Smith, R-Ore., one of the bill's sponsors, said that while he still supports the bill, he sees "tremendous opposition" to it in the Senate.
"Procedurally, it's in real peril," he said. "I wouldn't bet the pineapples on it (passing this year)."
Congress is set to recess in early October for the November elections. If both chambers haven't passed the bill and President Bush hasn't signed it into law by the end of the year when the current two-year Congress ends, supporters will have to start all over next year.
"Every day that goes by makes it that much harder to pass it in the House," Case said. "It's an absolute competition at this point for (House) floor time."
But Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, said he was optimistic about getting the bill through the House, if the White House signaled that it would accept it.
"The question has always been, do we have the White House support?" Abercrombie said. "If we don't, then what good is it to pass it if it's only going to get vetoed? Obviously, we can't overcome a veto."
The Justice Department under Bush has consistently raised doubts about whether Congress can recognize Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people similar to Indian tribes. The Justice Department under President Clinton had supported the bill.
Bush has not yet indicated his position.Advertiser staff reporter Gordon Y.K. Pang contributed to this report. Contact Dennis Camire at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Dennis Camire at email@example.com.