Senators volley over Akaka Bill
The measure's fate rides on a procedural vote
Hawaii's senators rejected claims yesterday that giving self-government to native Hawaiians would create a race-based, sovereign subnation within the United States.
The U.S. Senate discussed the bill to grant federal recognition to Hawaii's indigenous people, and a vote expected today would take it to the full Senate for consideration.
Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said his proposal would help right some of the wrongs done by the U.S. government in the 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.
"At the heart of it, this bill is about fairness and about creating a process to achieve it," Akaka told the Senate. "Native Hawaiians have not been treated equally."
He said the measure, dubbed the "Akaka Bill," would categorize native Hawaiians in a similar way as American Indians and Alaskan natives.
Senate Democrats appear to have near-unanimous support for the Akaka Bill, but several Republicans oppose it, saying it could divide the United States and give out privileges to people with a native Hawaiian bloodline.
"It is about sovereignty. It is about race," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. "We are taking a step toward being a United Nations and not the United States."
A cloture vote is expected today, which would end the possibility that opponents could filibuster the bill and prevent a full vote. A successful cloture vote generally indicates support for a bill but does not guarantee its passage.
Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, talked about how he was raised in Hawaii with the understanding that the native Hawaiian people had been mistreated by the United States.
"If anything, this will unite the people of Hawaii," Inouye said. "It's time we reach out and correct the wrong that was committed in 1893."
Republicans worry that the bill would create a subgroup with different rights from other Americans, weaken the country and allow the creation of a Hawaiian tribe where one did not exist before.
Alexander said everyone is an American, and he compared Hawaiians to Tennesseans and Oklahomans.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights recently advised against the bill, saying it was discriminatory.
But Hawaii's Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, its four Democratic congressmen and the state Legislature support the Akaka Bill's passage.
"This gives us an opportunity, I think, not to look backward, but to help all Hawaiians move forward," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who was born and raised in Hawaii.
Some Republican senators said a native Hawaiian government would be a step toward secession and the breakup of the nation's unity.
"We need to make sure everyone who grows up in this country knows what it means to be an American," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "It's a matter of the greatest nation ... to now be creating sovereign entities within our nation that are based on race."
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, said he remembers hearing similar fears in the past when Congress discussed extending land and programs toward Alaska natives, but none of those concerns have been borne out.
"Time has proven them wrong," Stevens said. "This bill will fulfill our federal obligation to these native Hawaiian people."