Native Hawaiian bill passed by U.S. House, awaits Senate vote Lingle, Bennett objections stand
By ERIN KELLY
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON — Following passage in the House yesterday, the fate of the Akaka bill now rests with the Senate, where the outcome is much less certain.
The House approved the bill that would grant federal recognition to Native Hawaiians, which could empower them to create their own sovereign government and give them a greater voice in the use of their valuable ancestral lands.
House members voted 245-164 to approve the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act.
It is the third time since 2000 that the House has approved similar legislation. However, the legislation has died in the Senate in the past, and no vote has been scheduled so far this year.
Still, bill author Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, took a moment yesterday to enjoy the victory in the House.
"The passage of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act is an important milestone for all the people of Hawai'i," Akaka said. "We have a moral obligation, unfulfilled since the overthrow of Queen Lili'uokalani, that we are closer to meeting today."
Democrats wanted to ensure that the bill passed before Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, leaves Congress at the end of this week to run for governor.
"It is the culmination of a legislative lifetime for me," Abercrombie told his colleagues as he urged their support for a bill he has worked on for more than a decade.
Rep. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawai'i, said it's time for Native Hawaiians to have the same right as American Indian tribes to govern themselves.
"How we treat our native indigenous people reflects our values and who we are as a country," she said.
But opponents said comparing Native Hawaiians to Indian tribes is a flawed analogy.
"It's absurd," said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif. "Indians were conquered by force and extended by treaty certain lands. They didn't vote to join the union as the people of Hawai'i did by a margin of 17 to 1."
The bill, McClintock said, would create a situation in which Hawai'i "would have two different sets of rights with two separate government entities based on race."
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said Congress should not pass the bill over the objections of Hawai'i Gov. Linda Lingle. Lingle objected to language that grants governing authority to Native Hawaiians before — instead of after — negotiations with the federal and state governments.
"We're going to divide the state of Hawai'i, based solely on race, and we're going to impose this on the state regardless of the objections of the state's governor," Hastings said.
Akaka said the bill protects the interests of all the state's residents.
"The bill passed today specifically says 'members of the Native Hawaiian governing entity will continue to be subject to the civil and criminal jurisdiction of federal and state courts,' " Akaka said. "The native governing entity cannot regulate non-Hawaiians. The native governing entity will need to enter into negotiations with the state of Hawai'i and the United States, and all three parties will want to be in good standing and comply with existing law. Any agreements on transfers of authority or land will require the approval of the state Legislature."
'OPTIMISTIC' ABOUT SENATE
The House vote comes two months after the Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved the bill, clearing the way for a vote in the full Senate.
"I am optimistic about bringing the bill to the Senate floor this year," Akaka said.
Previous attempts to pass the bill in the Senate stalled when supporters were unable to attract the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. But supporters of the bill say they may have just enough votes this time.
BACKED BY OBAMA
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents make up 59 votes and are expected to back the bill. In addition, at least one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, supports the legislation.
President Obama, who grew up in Hawai'i, reiterated his support for the bill yesterday.
The president "looks forward to signing the bill into law and establishing a government-to-govern-ment relationship with Native Hawaiians," said White House spokesman Robert Gibbs.GNS reporter Erin Kelly can be reached at email@example.com. John Yaukey of the Advertiser Washington Bureau contributed to this report.