WASHINGTON – Faced with the prospect of a derailed $3.4 billion settlement in the long-running Cobell v. Salazar lawsuit, Indian plaintiffs agreed Friday to another deadline extension in an effort to secure congressional approval.
May 28 had been set by the plaintiffs and the Obama administration as the final date for congressional action, but a deadline extension was agreed to after it became clear Congress could not get it done.
The new deadline, chosen by the plaintiffs, is June 15. It is the fifth deadline involving the deal, and the fourth extension.
Dennis Gingold, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, previously said that if Congress did not meet the May 28 deadline, he would proceed anew with litigation.
Plaintiffs said that it was worth approving another extension, given that Congress seems close to approval.
The extension came as a result of the Senate failing to pass the agreement by its Memorial Day recess. While the House voted affirmatively on the deal Friday, the Senate could not meet the same deadline due largely to time constraints and cost concerns with the overall bill to which Cobell was attached.
In the House, the settlement was attached to the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010. The Senate must pass the same language for it to become law.
Senators return to Washington June 7, but other concerns, including Obama administration nominees, are expected to be their immediate focus. Still, the tax and unemployment benefits package is expected to be taken up soon after their return.
Meredith MacKenzie, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said Friday that the senator strongly supports the settlement, but he realized that an extension would be necessary, given political realities in his chamber.
She noted that there has been much Democratic support for the bill, and blamed the Republicans for causing tactical delays.
Republicans have been saying that they are not trying to derail the settlement, just make it stronger.
Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs John Barrasso, R-Wyo., has expressed concern mirroring that of some Indians who have been especially apprehensive about attorneys’ fees, incentive awards for lead plaintiffs, and other components of the deal. He wants the issues accounted for in the Senate’s legislation.
On the day of the latest extension, Gingold expressed caution toward Barrasso’s position.
“Quite frankly, Dr. Barrasso’s opinion is interesting, but not pertinent to critical issues implicated in a litigation decision making process,” the lawyer said. “His views and that of his staff are viewed by most of the class as adverse to the best interests of individual Indians.”
In considering the Cobell deal, the House Rules Committee rejected an attempt to cap legal fees and make other changes to the agreement.
The settlement calls for $1.4 billion for individual Indian trust fund beneficiaries and $2 billion for a land consolidation program to be overseen by the Department of the Interior to buy back fractionated trust lands. Under the deal, many beneficiaries will receive around $1,000 to $1,500 for their claims.
The litigation has hinged on the contention that the government mismanaged billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by Interior for Indian trustees since 1887.
The Obama administration agreed that wrongs had been done, which helped them come to the $3.4 billion settlement figure.
Many Native Americans believe the settlement figure is far too low, noting that the plaintiffs had argued for around $50 billion during some points of the lawsuit.
Still, lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet citizen, has argued that the deal is solid. She has said it is probably the best that can be done without many more years of legal battles that could result in less return.