CBC warns Reid on Cherokee funds

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have promised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that they will try to block a Native American housing assistance bill if the measure does not include language that prevents the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma from receiving any of the benefits.

The House included such a prohibition in its Indian housing assistance bill passed in September. But the Senate version does not include similar language.

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“We are writing to advise you that members of the CBC will not support, and will actively oppose, passage of a [Native American housing assistance] bill that does not include this limitation,” the CBC stated in a letter sent to Reid on March 13.

The dispute between the CBC and the Cherokee Nation arose last year after the tribe amended its constitution to exclude the Freedmen — a group of freed slaves who have been members since the Civil-War era – from tribal membership. Black lawmakers have charged the tribe is ignoring the Treaty of 1866, an agreement the Cherokees signed with the U.S. government that gave tribal citizenship to the Freedmen.

“We must send the unequivocal message to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma that failure to provide full citizenship rights to the Cherokee Freedmen will have severe consequences,” CBC members wrote Reid.

Cherokee leaders argue that as a sovereign nation they have a right to amend their own constitution.

Thirty-five of the 43 CBC members signed the letter to Reid. The Senate leader has not responded to the letter as of yet, according to House aides.

Members approved an amendment offered by Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.) that bars funds for the Cherokees when the House took up the housing assistance bill in September. Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) also was successful in adding language that delays the funding prohibition until tribal courts render a decision on the fairness of the Cherokee’s efforts to exclude the Freedmen.

The Senate bill, which has now been reported out of the Indian Affairs Committee, does not include language similar to Watt’s provision. Negotiations in the Senate are ongoing between Republicans and Democrats, according to a Senate Democratic leadership aide.  

Since the flare-up over the Freedmen last year, the Cherokees have increasing come under pressure from CBC members. Rep. Diane Watson (D-Calif.) introduced a bill that would prohibit the distribution of federal funds to the tribe until it reverses its decision on the Freedmen. Watt has been tapped to lead a taskforce on the issue for the caucus.

In turn, the Cherokees have bulked up their lobbying presence here in Washington. The tribe has hired the Podesta Group and McBee Strategic Consulting to help sooth relations on Capitol Hill.

Congress has remained attentive to the issue, however. Before the Easter recess, Watson, Watt, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) met with Carl Artman of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to discuss the Cherokees. Staff aides are working on a final draft of a letter to Artman that will be signed by the four lawmakers shortly, according to a House aide.