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Cobell stalled in Senate

WASHINGTON – The Cobell settlement continues to be stalled in the Senate, and the last legislative vehicle of the season has left the station without the deal on board.

The writing on the wall became ever clearer the week of Sept. 27 when the Senate failed to include the $3.4 billion proposal in a variety of stopgap measures under consideration to keep the government operating until after the November elections.

After passing the measures, the Senate adjourned Sept. 29, and was not scheduled to reconvene until Nov. 15 in a lame-duck session.

The White House had asked the Senate to include Cobell in the stopgap, but was unsuccessful. The House successfully passed the deal twice this year.

Senate Majority Leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev., was quick to blame the GOP for the hold-up, saying through a spokesman that Republicans should “have the courage” to say “they are fundamentally opposed to ending this injustice for black farmers and Native American trust account-holders.” The spokesman was referring to both Cobell and a separate case, Pigford II.

Republicans have countered that Reid is playing political games of his own, and said the speaker has failed to address the fact that some of them believe the deal to be harmful to individual Indians in its terms, while paying immense lawyer fees.

“... we are greatly disappointed that the Senate leadership decided not to bring the settlement ... to a promised vote on the Senate floor. ... our settlement was fully funded and would not be adding to the national debt.” – Elouise Cobell

Some have questioned, too, why Reid didn’t attempt tough legislative maneuvers to try to overcome challenges, rather than letting the agreement stall.

Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell broke her silence regarding the latest setbacks, issuing a statement Sept. 29 that expressed her disappointment with Reid and other Senate leaders.

“I know I speak for all of Indian country when I say that we are greatly disappointed that the Senate leadership decided not to bring the settlement of our lawsuit over the government’s broken Indian trust to a promised vote on the Senate floor,” Cobell said.

“We are convinced that a vast majority of senators supported the settlement we reached with the Justice and Interior departments in December. We believed we had won the support of conservatives by making certain that our settlement was fully funded and would not be adding to the national debt.”

Cobell noted that the Indian plaintiffs’ settlement agreement expires Oct. 15 – long before the next Senate session would begin. She said “no decisions have been made as to whether we should continue to press for the Senate’s approval of our agreement in the lame-duck session or return to court and resume our lawsuit.”

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has said he will work for passage of the settlement in the lame-duck session. He chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Meanwhile, Pigford II, a separate case involving black farmers that has also earned a settlement proposal from the Obama administration, officially broke off from Cobell when three senators recently announced standalone legislation to try to get that deal done.

Until that point, Cobell and Pigford had been partners in combined legislation for much of the year. Despite having nothing to do with each other, their partnership was intended to strengthen the likelihood that both would be approved by Congress.

Instead, black farmers began to see Cobell as a hindrance, and pushed for the detachment, preferring to go it alone.

Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., granted that wish Sept. 23 by introducing a bill to fund the $1.15 billion settlement that black farmers reached with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in February.

Dorgan had said earlier in the month that Cobell and Pigford should not be separated.

Even given the de-coupling, Pigford also did not move before the Senate adjourned, with increasing questions being asked as to how plaintiffs in that case have been counted to determine their monetary awards.

Cobell did not offer comment on the Pigford situation, but she did offer thanks to a variety of senators, including to one who has long been perceived as holding up congressional approval – Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., who has said the fees for lawyers in the case are far too great compared to the small amount the average Indian plaintiff would receive.

The Cobell case is based on years of Indian royalty mismanagement allegations against the U.S. government.