Cobell legislation hopes fade in committee

WASHINGTON – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., announced Aug. 2 that the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will withhold a bill to settle the Cobell v. Kempthorne trust funds lawsuit from the full Senate until September.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, chaired by McCain with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., in the vice-chairman’s seat, had planned a vote on the bill. But late Aug. 1, McCain withdrew it from the scheduled agenda. The 11th-hour move followed postponement of an Aug. 26 meeting for the same purpose. That meeting had been scheduled to unveil a bill that called for $8 billion to settle the accounts in the Individual Indian Money trust. Based on the researches of committee staff, McCain and Dorgan had agreed on $8 billion as a fair settlement figure. According to Capitol Hill sources who declined to speak for attribution on the sensitive issue, the delay was due to McCain’s reluctance to proceed without encouragement from the administration of President Bush.

The Aug. 1 change of agenda followed a meeting that morning between McCain and Dorgan, newly installed Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. In remarks to open the Aug. 2 meeting, McCain made it clear the administration expressed concerns about the bill as well as a willingness to work them out. But with fewer than three weeks’ worth of working days scheduled on the legislative calendar, as the November elections and the all-important federal appropriations bills absorb congressional attention, doubts abound from Capitol Hill to Washington’s “K Street” lobbyist corridor that a bill can be passed at all.

Elouise Cobell, the namesake plaintiff in the case, issued a statement dismissing the administration’s concerns as bad-faith negotiation designed to torpedo the bill. She acknowledged the short time frame, but insisted that legislation can still be passed if McCain brings all of his political skill and influence to bear on pushing it through the current 109th Congress. Any bill not passed into law by the end of the Congress becomes null until it is introduced from scratch in another Congress.

McCain made it clear the committee will work all-out with the administration and the IIM account holders to produce a passable bill.

“The very first hearing we had on this issue last March made clear that all parties had to be committed to reaching a settlement,” McCain said. “Yesterday morning, vice chairman Dorgan and I met with Secretary Kempthorne and Attorney General Gonzales and had what I believe was a very productive discussion into salient issues. At that meeting, the secretary and the attorney general made a commitment to have their staff work with Indian Affairs Committee staff over the August recess [of Congress] to the goal of producing legislation that all parties to the Cobell legislation can live with. Secretary Kempthorne followed up with a letter to the vice chairman and me last night confirming his commitment to us as I quote – quote: ‘There is both an atmosphere and positive attitude in the administration to find a settlement solution. I believe we have a historic opportunity to embrace constructive solutions to long standing trust management concerns held by generations of Indians.’”

After admitting Kempthorne’s correspondence into the committee record, McCain termed it “the kind of commitment we have been seeking, the kind of commitment that is necessary to achieve a full and complete resolution to the entire issue of trust management that has plagued the department and Indian country, including resolution of the fractionation of land ownership, a problem at the root of much of this issue. Accordingly I am asking my staff on the committee to work with plaintiffs’ representatives and designated contacts at the Department[s] of Interior, Justice and Treasury, as well as the Indian tribes, tribal organizations and individual Indian organizations over the next month to craft legislation the committee can mark up [vote out of committee to the full Senate] when we’re back

in session.

“I want to emphasize again Senator Dorgan’s and my commitment that this be a complete resolution of the Cobell issue. We will not agree to any settlement that does not include all aspects of it so that this committee, this nation and Indian country can move on.”

Dorgan concurred, but added that if a bill cannot be passed, the Cobell lawsuit could stay in the courts for another 10 years.

Other obstacles to legislation include differences among tribes, particularly Plains tribes that include many IIM account holders. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., said after the hearing that the consensus on any bill to settle Cobell has got to be broad, embracing tribes as well as IIM plaintiffs, Congress and the administration. “I don’t think we’re there yet.”

Settlement legislation as McCain planned it, before the administration weighed in, had considerable support in the Senate. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., chairman of the Interior Appropriations Committee, committed himself to working with Interior during August to find an equitable solution of the case.