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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Clock's ticking on Akaka bill in overloaded Congress

Gannet Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON Hawai'i lawmakers now face hard political deadlines to pass historic legislation that would create a process for Native Hawaiian self-governance, also known as the Akaka bill.

Key committees in both chambers of Congress have passed the bill out for full floor votes, which are expected within weeks.

President Obama has vowed to sign any Native Hawaiian legislation. This historic bill would remake the political landscape of Hawai'i, granting Native Hawaiians new power over their ancestral lands, worth billions.

But when would an overloaded Congress deal with this and under what circumstances?

The House has passed the measure twice, and it's expected to do so again with little debate.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who plans to leave his post Feb. 28, after 11 terms, to run for governor, said he'll remain for the crucial vote on the Akaka bill.

That indicates it will come up soon in the House.

But in the Senate which is grappling with other national issues such as health care, energy and immigration the Akaka legislation could snag once again on a complex schedule and the whim or will of a single senator.

So far, the bill faces no "holds" in which any senator can anonymously freeze action on a measure.

The Akaka bill will probably need 60 votes in the Senate to override a filibuster, which is common even on routine legislation.

"It looks like that's the route we'll have to go," Democratic Sen. Daniel Akaka said recently.

This is where the bill has always failed since it was first proposed almost a decade ago after a pivotal Supreme Court case that denied Native Hawaiians the federal recognition they have long sought.

The special Senate election this week in Massachusetts left Democrats one vote short of the 60 they need to push their agenda through.

Even though Republicans gained the 41 votes they needed to block Democratic legislation, the Akaka bill is hardly at the top of their agenda. But they could look at it as an issue they want to champion.

Some Republicans have opposed the Akaka bill ideologically, saying it's race-based.

The bill would develop a process for organizing a Native Hawaiian government and would rewrite the political landscape in Hawai'i, giving Native Hawaiians virtually the same rights conferred on Native Americans and Alaskans.

Opponents of the 9-year-old legislation, which has changed shape several times, say the measure challenges the American principle of equality and would open doors to political volatility among Native Hawaiians.

In 2006, the Justice Department under President George W. Bush argued the bill would "divide people by their race."

Some prominent members of the Native Hawaiian legal community object to the Akaka bill, although those objections focus on details and not on the overall thrust of the legislation.

In a four-page analysis, the Native Hawaiian Bar Association said some provisions would grant the federal government too much immunity against potential claims by Native Hawaiians, especially for land.