Political winds bode ill for future of Akaka Bill


POSTED: Saturday, January 23, 2010

Although its author expresses optimism that the Akaka Bill will pass this year, the loss of the Democrats' supermajority in the Senate and last-minute changes to the bill that fueled objections in Hawaii may pose significant hurdles during this ninth try.

The measure that would grant native Hawaiians federal recognition like that of American Indian tribes was in some trouble even before Republican Scott Brown's upset victory in Massachusetts ended the Democrats' filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

Elements inserted in the Senate version to address concerns raised by the Obama administration about the measure's constitutionality in turn prompted objections by Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett, longtime supporters of the bill caught by surprise by the elimination of language they said protected the state's rights and interests.

The Obama administration worried that special status bestowed on native Hawaiians may be overturned as illegal racial discrimination, given the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Rice v. Cayetano. But redefining native Hawaiians under existing federal law governing Indian tribes raised a host of issues barely aired in Hawaii under the bill's many previous incarnations.

Negotiations are under way among the Lingle administration, the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the offices of Sen. Daniel Inouye and Sen. Daniel Akaka aimed at trying to hammer out language agreeable to all.

The House Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Committee of Indian Affairs have approved different versions of the bill, which now await floor votes in the respective chambers.

House approval, achieved twice before, again is expected.

The difficulty remains in the Senate, which, already bogged down in health care, energy and fiscal legislation, now is reacting to the special election in Massachusetts, in which a Republican railing against big government, back-room dealing and special interests won the seat held for decades by liberal lion Edward Kennedy.

Before Kennedy's death and Brown's election, the Akaka Bill enjoyed the support of all 60 Senate Democrats and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. So Akaka's office insists it should still have the necessary 60 votes, even without Brown.

His vote may not be essential, but Brown's election has drastically changed the climate in Washington. Democrats facing midterm elections are running scared, once beleaguered Republicans are feeling newly powerful, and any legislation lacking bipartisan support is suddenly a much tougher sell.

It's hard to imagine that the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act will be a high priority outside the Hawaii delegation in such a topsy-turvy political environment, and the lack of transparency surrounding the late changes in the Senate version may come to haunt its author.