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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 17, 2009

Native Hawaiian bill moves ahead without revision that upset state


By JOHN YAUKEY and Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writers

WASHINGTON A Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill moved forward in the House yesterday without the proposed changes that have drawn opposition from Gov. Linda Lingle.

The bill, which creates a process for Hawaiians to form their own government similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives, was approved by the House Natural Resources Committee and now goes to the full House.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, chose not to offer an amendment to the bill that had prompted objections from Lingle and state Attorney General Mark Bennett. The amendment would have granted governing authority to Hawaiians prior to instead of after negotiations with the federal and state governments and would have treated Hawaiians as an Indian tribe in some cases.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, the bill's main sponsor, will decide whether to offer the amendment when the bill comes before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee today.

The sudden opposition by the Lingle administration, which has previously supported the Akaka bill, led to confusion about how the proposed changes were developed and questions about why the state was not fully consulted.

Abercrombie said on Tuesday night that he was surprised the state received the proposed changes only in the past few days.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, issued an even stronger statement yesterday. "The events of the past 24 hours were totally unexpected," he said. "I was very surprised.

"I was not aware that the revisions to the bill being discussed between Sen. Akaka's office and President Obama's administration were not shared with Gov. Linda Lingle. I am in the process of trying to determine what happened and the best course forward."

Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for Akaka, said the Obama administration worked on the draft of the proposed changes. The Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement and the Native Hawaiian Bar Association also had input.

The amendment was not finalized until last week, he said, and the text was not widely released until Monday.

Even if Akaka chooses to abandon the amendment today, he said, negotiations with the Obama administration would continue as the bill moves to the House and Senate floors.

The episode is the first real crack in the otherwise unified front on the Akaka bill between Democrats in the Hawai'i congressional delegation and the Republican governor.

CLOSING RANKS

Hawai'i lawmakers, who wanted the bill to have an easy path, now have to do some damage control.

"The bill approved by the committee today was as I introduced it earlier this year, without change or amendment," Abercrombie said in a statement after the committee vote. "We will be working with the state of Hawai'i and the Obama administration to determine the best way to proceed."

House Republicans, who question whether the Akaka bill is constitutional because it divides people by race, also claimed partial victory.

"It was the correct course of action for Democrats to abandon their rush to adopt the proposed changes to the Akaka bill at today's hastily scheduled markup," Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the ranking member of the committee, said in a statement.

"With both the attorney general and governor of Hawai'i announcing their strong opposition to the proposed revisions to this bill, moving forward would have been irresponsible and highly alarming."

Bennett said he was pleased by Abercrombie's decision. He said the Lingle administration is prepared to work with Hawai'i lawmakers and the Obama administration to address any concerns about the bill.

"Our support for it is undiminished by the recent events," he said.

CHALLENGE IN SENATE

The House has passed versions of the Akaka bill twice since it was first introduced in 2000. But the bill has always faced problems in the Senate, where opponents can use procedural tools to delay bills until 60 of the chamber's 100 senators agree to move forward.

The Akaka bill could rewrite the political landscape in Hawai'i, potentially giving Native Hawaiians greater rights over land use and cultural issues, including control over 1.8 million acres annexed by the United States in 1898.

The state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and many Hawaiians support the bill as a measure of self-determination for an indigenous people, but some Hawaiians believe it would weaken claims of sovereignty.

Other opponents of the legislation, including many conservatives, say the bill challenges the American principle of equality and opens the door to political volatility among Native Hawaiians.

In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice under President Bush argued the Akaka bill would "divide people by their race."

Justice Department officials from the Obama administration have been negotiating with the Hawai'i delegation about fine points in the bill, but the department has supported the bill.

Akaka has said he expects he will need 60 votes in the Senate to eventually pass the bill.

"It looks like that's the route we'll have to go," he said.

John Yaukey reported from Washington, D.C. Derrick DePledge reported from Honolulu. Reach Yaukey at jyaukey@gannett.com.