Majority power gives new hope for Akaka Bill
But the senator says his first priority is setting a deadline to leave Iraq
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka says he will reintroduce the so-called Akaka Bill to provide government recognition for native Hawaiians, now that the Democrats have taken control of Congress.
But before anything, the 82-year-old senator's priority is setting a deadline for getting troops out of Iraq by July.
"Coming out of these meetings I had (with Iraqi officials), I felt that we need to put pressure on the Iraqi government to govern itself," Akaka said. "By setting a deadline, at least they have the time to do the work."
After that, and passing a flurry of federal appropriations bills in Congress, his controversial Hawaiian federal recognition bill will be reintroduced.
In June the bill, officially called the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, failed to make it to the floor after a cloture vote. The cloture motion forced the Senate to decide whether it would take up the measure.
Senate Democrats then had near-unanimous support for the bill, which would recognize a legal and political U.S. partnership with a native Hawaiian governing entity, similar to that of American Indian tribes.
However, Republicans then called it an unconstitutional, race-based plan, stating it would create two classes of people in Hawaii and begin the state's secession from the union. U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a key opponent of the bill, was re-elected Tuesday.
"I would, of course, would want to deal with him on this," Akaka said yesterday. "With the kind of pressures that the American Indian population has been putting on him, there may be changes."
Akaka said he would not be making any changes to the Akaka Bill, citing the work put into it by the five task forces he created, made up of local government officials, native Hawaiians, federal officials, American Indians, Alaskan natives and congressional scholars.
"For me the wisdom of all these different groups really put it together, and I feel it's a really strong bill," Akaka said. "My feeling is if it went to the floor, we can pass it."
Akaka said he is confident he will garner the support he needs among a Democratic majority. About a dozen Republicans supported the bill in his last attempt.
He also does not anticipate another cloture vote, in which 60 votes were needed to bring the bill to the floor. With a Democratic majority, Akaka said, his bill should move to the floor for debate easily.
"The ones that I would need to work on are the freshman senators," Akaka said, referring to the new faces in the Democratic majority.
Akaka now moves up in seniority, from 19th among the Democrats to third, behind West Virginia's Robert Byrd and Massachusetts' Ted Kennedy.
With that power, he is in line to chair the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs. He also could chair subcommittees overseeing government management, readiness and parks.
In the Veterans Affairs Committee, Akaka said he hopes to increase funding for veterans' services, given the large population of veterans in Hawaii that is only increasing with the current Middle Eastern conflicts.
"My plan is to link it to the cost of war," Akaka said, adding that he would look at restructuring the Department of Veterans Affairs. "I'm working on setting up what I call a seamless system from active duty to retirement, so that there's no gap in between as far as benefits and services are concerned."
Akaka said with a Democratic majority, he expects to be busy for the next six years, and hopes to stay in Congress "for as long as I can."
The senator sighed, then said, "I'm looking forward to this."