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Congress breaks with Indian bills still pending

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives adjourned on Oct. 9 with the
Senate following suit Oct. 12. In a typical Congress, congressional members
and some of their staff would head for the campaign trail until the Nov. 2
elections and not descend in force on Washington again until January 2005,
for the presidential inaugural and the opening of the 109th Congress.

But at least in this respect, the current 108th Congress will not be
typical. Lawmakers may be called back into session even before the
elections, if negotiators can finalize an intelligence reform bill by then.
And after the elections, a "lame duck session" in November is inevitable.
Staffers are due back on Nov. 15, and both the House and Senate are
scheduled to reconvene the following day.

Lame duck sessions are named after so-called lame duck members of Congress
- lawmakers who are serving out their terms, having lost their seats in the
previous election. But the name is reserved only for those sessions that
take place between November in a presidential election year, and the
opening of the following Congress.

Lame duck members, and presidents for that matter, may have lost their
influence over any future Congress, but their retained power is still to be
reckoned with during lame duck sessions. They don't have as many
constituent demands on their time and may be amenable to political deal
making they wouldn't have considered previously, in a last attempt to get
bills they favor into law. They may lend their votes to rulemaking
processes that influence goals they couldn't accomplish legislatively. They
have less incentive to curry favor in a future Congress, a factor that may
play out in any number of ways. And in a Congress as closely divided
between party partisans as the 108th, no telling what procedural maneuvers
may lie in store as the parties wax or wane on Nov. 2.

The lame duck session must address a number of appropriations measures that
will have to be passed to keep the government and its programs in funding.
Among the outstanding appropriations bills are H.R. 4568/S.2804, which
would authorize the Interior Department budget for fiscal year 2005, The
Interior budget is heavy with Indian-specific funding, of course. Last
year, in the initial session of the 108th Congress, continuing resolutions
kept the government operational until appropriations bills for FY04 finally
made it into law.

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Historically, Indian-specific legislation has fared somewhat well during
lame duck sessions. Indian country has reason to hope that track record
continues, for a number of Indian-specific bills are still pending in the
108th Congress. All are accessible on the Internet at Enter bill type and number, scroll
to the bottom of the respondent Web page and link to "Detailed, up-to-date
bill status information" for the latest congressional action on the
following bills (more detail can often be found by following the "bill
text" link at bottom of the "Congressional Legislation Details" Web page to
a "Bill Summary & Status File" link).

In the Senate: S. 297, concerning the federal acknowledgment process; S.
1696, concerning the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance
Act; S. 1715, concerning the Department of Interior Tribal Self-Governance
Act; S. 2172, concerning technical amendments to contract support
provisions in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act;
S. 1530, concerning compensation to the Lower Brule and Crow Creek tribes
in South Dakota for losses due to Missouri River dams; H.R. 2941,
concerning a boundary adjustment for the Colorado River Indian Reservation
(it has passed the House and is now "received in the Senate"); and H.R.
3982, concerning a land swap between the Paiutes of Utah and the city of
Richfield (passed the House, "received in the Senate").

In the House of Representatives: H.R. 5134, concerning prompt Secretary of
Interior review of longstanding petitions for federal recognition as
tribes; and S. 2436, concerning the Administration for Native Americans (it
has passed in the Senate and is now before the House Education and
Workforce Committee).

One of the most important bills still in limbo in both chambers would
reauthorize and amend the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The bill
number is S. 556 in the Senate, H.R. 2440 in the House.

A number of other Indian-specific bills have passed in both the House and
the Senate and gone on to the White House. One of the most notable of these
is Senate bill 1721, the American Indian Probate Reform Act, amending the
Indian Land Consolidation Act with a series of measures designed to reduce
tribal land fractionation. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., has called it "one
of the largest achievements for Native Americans in this Congress." S. 2634
contains a number of measures to reduce "statewide and tribal" youth
suicide; S. 551 would authorize the Environmental Protection Agency to
treat the Southern Ute tribe in Colorado as a state for purposes of air
quality control enforcement on the reservation, ratifying a tribe-state
trade-off that may hold relevance for other tribes and states; H.R. 4066
authorizes a Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma land conveyance; H.R. 4471 amends
the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act with the statute
requisite to offering federal loan guarantees of 95 percent, high enough to
attract private lenders; and H.R. 3858 encourages pancreatic islet cell
transplant, an experimental but promising treatment for Type 1 diabetes -
"a vicious disease, and one that widely afflicts tribal populations," in
the words of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., one of 48
cosponsors in the Senate and 175 in the House.

Finally, it may not always be apparent that a number of bills aimed at
other constituencies also affect Indian people. Typical this year is a vast
package of tax cuts, aimed broadly at benefiting American businesses and
corporations, that extends an accelerated tax write-off on eligible
business property on reservations, providing significant tax savings on
assets; as well as a tax credit for businesses employing Indians.