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Bi-partisanship still necessary for Indian country

WASHINGTON – With Sen. Barack Obama firmly clinching the White House and Democrats gaining upwards of 20 seats in the House of Representatives and at least five seats in the Senate, the Democratic Party is certainly in a position to lead. But Indian leaders warn that it will still be crucial to work both sides of the aisle to get meaningful policy changes accomplished in Congress.

On Election Day evening, after substantial Democratic victories were clear, Democratic Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray from Washington state held a press conference in which they said that they expected to be able to get much more business done under their party’s increased majority.

Their words may ring true on the national stage, but for tribal interests, that outcome is not as clear. While Democrats have long been key allies in Congress, substantial Indian policy development and changes have often required the support and leadership prowess of Republicans.

That scenario is still true today, especially since the Democrats did not win 60 seats in the Senate. Without that margin of victory, Republicans will still be able to filibuster bills they don’t like, and are just as apt as before the elections to form coalitions with conservative Democrats to try to maintain some influence.

Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, said it will be “essential” to foster relationships with members of the GOP in the next session of Congress.

“There continues to be Republicans who are our champions,” Johnson Pata said, pointing to Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-AK, and Rep. Tom Cole, R-OK, among them.

“My hope is probably not different than any other American – that folks will get down to getting business done and stop playing partisan politics.”

Former Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell is one who knows just how important it is to work toward bi-partisan solutions on Indian affairs. Originally a member of the Democratic Party, he switched to the Republican Party in 1995.

“You can’t say because more Democrats got elected in the Senate that that means the Senate is going to be friendlier toward Native Americans.

“You’ve got some strong allies on the Republican side, too. Indians should not get the idea that one party is going to be a lot friendlier than the other. We’ve got friends on both sides – and some who are not so friendly.”

Despite his allegiance to the GOP, Nighthorse Campbell said that he is more than willing to critique party members, including President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, whom he feels have done little to advance Indian issues.

Even some of the most pro-Obama supporters, including Theresa Sheldon, an organizer with the Native Vote Washington voter advocacy group, echoed the need to reach across party lines.

“Republicans have been very good friends to Indian country and have been some of the lead people pushing our issues,” Sheldon said.

“There’s no way we should consider favoritism to just one party. That would not do us any good. Native issues are not Democrat or Republican issues. They are Native issues.”