Native Hawaiian bill gets close, again

Republicans had little good to say last week about a bill to grant native Hawaiians the chance to set up a sovereign government similar to those run by American Indians and Alaskan tribes.

In a letter sent before a Senate vote, William Moschella, assistant U.S. attorney general, said the bill would reverse the great melting-pot tradition of the United States “and divide people by race.” During floor debate, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the bill is “the wrong way to right whatever wrongs may have happened in Hawaii.”

But just in 2003 some Republicans were apparently more inclined to support a native-Hawaiian bill.

As they scrambled for votes for a comprehensive energy bill, Republicans offered to support the bill in exchange for yeses from Hawaii’s two Democratic senators, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka, on an upcoming cloture vote, according to one GOP source with direct knowledge of the negotiations.

The instance shows, not altogether surprisingly, that political allegiances can shift depending on circumstance, although it isn’t clear that, had Hawaii’s senators switched positions on the energy bill, the native-Hawaiian bill would have had enough support to pass.

On its own, the bill, colloquially called the Akaka bill after its main Senate sponsor, hasn’t had the support to pass either congressional body.

An original vote scheduled for last year was delayed by Hurricane Katrina until last week. In that vote, Senate supporters failed to win enough votes to end debate.

Similar to the vote on the Hawaii bill, congressional leaders were trying to shut off debate on the energy bill in 2003 through cloture, which requires 60 votes to pass.

With a huge blackout in the Northeast just months before still fresh in members’ minds, supporters of the energy bill, who had worked for years to fashion a compromise from the Bush administration’s national energy policy crafted two years before that could pass a divided Congress, thought they finally had the votes. But in a pre-vote whip list the two Hawaii senators were listed under the no column.

“We didn’t expect that,” the GOP source said.

Wanting to give President Bush a win as he began his reelection campaign, House negotiators discussed a number of options that included support in the House for the Hawaiian bill, a longtime priority for the Hawaii delegation.

According to the source, the administration and Republican congressional leaders had tacitly agreed to the deal. Bush reportedly phoned Inouye to lobby for the Democrat’s support, although it isn’t clear what the president offered.

Senate Democrats never responded to the offer, the source said. The deal and the bill fell through when then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said liability protection for the gasoline additive MTBE, found to be polluting groundwater, would have to be dropped for the energy bill to pass the Senate, the source said. House Republicans strongly supported liability protection, although it was ultimately dropped in a later version.

Two years and more than $1 million in lobbying fees later, the native-Hawaiian bill remains stuck.

In an apparent reversal of roles, last week it was Senate Republicans who were the ones to block the bill. During the floor debate before the cloture vote, which failed 56-41, several Republicans said that while they sympathized with the discrimination native Hawaiians have suffered the bill raised the uncomfortable prospect of a government based on race.

“Racial diversity is important, but it should not be the rationale for the establishment of a separate sovereign government,” said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.).

Alexander and other opponents of the bill said Hawaiians didn’t meet the definition of an Indian tribe. For example, Hawaiians have not acted as a sovereign tribe for the past 100 years and are not a separate and distinct community, Alexander said.

But supporters said native Hawaiians are indigenous to the island and should enjoy the rights granted to Indian tribes in the continental United States and Alaska.

“This measure does not result in race discrimination. But discrimination will occur if this measure is not passed,” Inouye said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said, “Native Hawaiians are no different than the Indians of Nevada.”

Thirteen Republicans voted with 42 Democrats for cloture. Three senators — John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — did not vote.

There is no indication whether Senate Republicans who last week spoke against the Akaka bill would have accepted a deal that allowed the measure to go forward in 2003, as the negotiations apparently didn’t progress very far.

Despite last week’s setback, supporters promise to continue to try to get the bill passed this year, and next Congress if need be.

“We are determined that we will move forward,” said Martha Ross, a spokeswoman for Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ Washington office.

Since 2001, the agency, a division of the Hawaii state government that was created to improve the lives of native Hawaiians, has spent more than $1.7 million on lobbying in support of the Akaka bill. It paid $660,000 in 2005 to Patton Boggs, helping the firm finish first in the race for lobbying revenue last year.