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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 19, 2010

Native Hawaiian self-government bill could go to vote next week

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Mark Bennett

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A version of the Akaka bill could be up for a vote on the floor of the U.S. House next week.

The House Rules Committee is scheduled to decide Monday at noon Hawai'i time, when a hearing will take place for HR 2314, formally titled the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2009.

With U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie , D-Hawai'i, slated to resign Feb. 28 to focus on a gubernatorial run, House Democrats appear ready to grant his wish to vote on the Akaka bill before he leaves Washington.

That would mean a vote would need to take place next week.

Meanwhile, Hawai'i's congressional delegation is close to reaching compromise language designed to satisfy both state and federal attorneys. The two sides have locked horns on the language of the bill since December.

Delegation staff have "been working with the state as well as other stakeholders to come up with a final text that addresses as many of the concerns as possible," said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, spokesman for Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i. Van Dyke said his office expects a final version to be reached "in the coming days."

State Attorney General Mark Bennett said the parties have been able to address some of the concerns raised by Gov. Linda Lingle's administration, but not all of them.

The Lingle administration in the past has supported the bill.

But in December, House members agreed to insert language pushed by the Obama administration that calls for giving Native Hawaiians inherent powers and privileges of self-determination. It also called for a new Native Hawaiian governing authority to be recognized by the federal government, similar to that of Indian tribes.

That language is different from the original 2009 bill, which only called for setting up a negotiating process that could lead to self-determination and the establishment of a recognized Native Hawaiian governing entity.

Bennett said the state's concerns about the Obama administration's language have been addressed by the parties.

However, he said, the state still has strong objections to clauses in the new draft that could give immunity from state law to the entity, its employees and officers while they are conducting government activity.

"Government activity is not defined," Bennett said.

Further, he said, the language "affects the ability of the state to enforce its regulations and laws as they relate to health, safety and the environment."

One example would be if the governing entity were to provide medical services. Doctors employed by the entity would not fall under the health regulations of the state.

Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, which moved out the bill, accused Democrats of negotiating behind closed doors on the bill.

"Subdividing Americans into sovereign nations based on race or ethnicity is a serious matter and is something that should be debated openly, not in the back rooms with restricted input," Hastings said in a release.

Bennett said that despite his continuing concerns, the bill will move forward and be voted on next week.

The Akaka bill has passed the House several times since it was first introduced in 2000. And even with the objections raised by Hastings and other Republicans, it is not expected to run into problems this time around.

The bill, however, has failed in the Senate.

With a Democratic president in the White House and a Democratic majority in the Senate, the bill appeared poised for passage.

But the upset victory last month by Republican Scott Brown for the Massachusetts Senate seat long held by the late Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, has put a new wrinkle on the situation.

Akaka has stated that the bill which bears his name will require the votes of 60 Democrats to assure passage, since that would ensure the bill avoids a filibuster.

Brown's victory reduced the number of Democrats in the Senate to 59.

While a version of the Akaka bill has passed the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, it's unclear when it will be up for a vote in the full Senate.