Akaka says revised bill can pass this term
Opponents doubt the changes will swing enough votes
U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka reintroduced a bill yesterday to grant native Hawaiians their own government, saying this time the Democratic majority in Congress gives him hope the revised measure will finally pass.
Akaka, whose legislation has been blocked for six years, expects it to have a smooth ride out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Byron Dorgan, a fellow Democrat from North Dakota.
"We are the majority in the Senate, and therefore we can move the bill in a way that we couldn't," said Akaka, who wants the bill considered by the committee next month. "We have more control. Although the numbers are close, 51 to 49, we have that edge."
The 82-year-old Akaka timed his Senate floor speech to coincide with the 114th anniversary of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani in 1893. That event, Akaka said, "expedited the decline of a proud and self-governing people" and "facilitated native Hawaiians being disenfranchised from not only their culture and land, but from their way of life."
The so-called Akaka Bill, also known as the Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, would create a "government-to-government" relationship that would address issues such as the transfer of lands, assets and natural resources.
The bill was reworked to address concerns raised in 2005 by the Bush administration as well as by lawmakers who felt it was racist and unconstitutional. The revisions clarify that civil and criminal jurisdiction currently held by federal and state governments will remain intact, and that the bill does not authorize gambling in the islands. The new language also says grievances having to do with historical wrongs against native Hawaiians should go through federal and state governments instead of the courts.
Opponents, however, doubt the changes are enough to get the measure passed.
"I don't think the bill will get any more favorable consideration, just because it is really such an outrageously bad bill," said William Burgess, an attorney with the group Aloha for All. "It would sponsor a separate government for one race; it would break up and give away much of the state of Hawaii; it would set a dangerous precedent for the United States; and it would almost certainly lead to secession."
Burgess's objections were echoed by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who said the bill "is really about transferring control over land and other assets to this new, race-based government."
"I strongly oppose this bill," Alexander wrote in a statement posted on his Web site. "Our nation must remain 'one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all' -- not many nations, divided by race, with special privileges for some."
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs welcomed the bill's introduction with a symbolic news conference behind Iolani Palace, where the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom happened.
"We urge all peoples of Hawaii, native Hawaiians and those who love Hawaii, to join us in seeking what is right for native Hawaiians," said Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona, noting the bill would help shield Hawaiian programs like OHA from lawsuits. "There's a lot at stake for the present and for the future of native Hawaiians."
Gov. Linda Lingle, who traveled to Washington, D.C., last year to lobby for the bill, said she had called Akaka to tell him she would help again.
"I made it very clear to him that while I would like to be a part of that effort, I would like it to be differently than last time," she said. "We have to have a coordinated strategy going in that sets up a battle plan in order to get this adopted, rather than everyone doing their own thing."
In June the proposed legislation suffered a procedural defeat and did not reach the Senate floor. Akaka had the backing of the Democrats but was not able to get the 60 votes needed to stop a GOP filibuster of the measure.
If the bill moves out of the Indian Affairs Committee and clears the Senate, it would then have to be approved by the House before it could go to President Bush.