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Congress passes tardy '04 budget

WASHINGTON - After a last Democratic holdout, the Senate on Jan. 22 joined the House of Representatives in passing the federal budget for fiscal year 2004.

President George W. Bush and the Senate had already turned their attention to the fiscal year 2005 budget. The president has called for a $9.7 billion budget increase, and come what may there is apt to be a supplemental budget injection this year to pay for the Iraq occupation.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs had scheduled meetings on the president's 2005 budget request for Feb. 4 and 11 at 9:30 a.m. in the committee's usual public setting, Room 485 of the Senate Russell building. But Senate buildings shut down Feb. 3 following the discovery of lethal ricin toxin in mail that reached the offices of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Official statements on Capitol Hill suggested a four-to five-day shutdown, meaning the presumed cancellation of the Feb. 4 hearing. The Feb. 11 hearing could still take place as scheduled, but as of early Feb. 4 no updated information was available on the SCIA Web site, http://indian.senate.gov/.

Documents released by the Interior Department at the start of February indicate an approximate $50 million reduction in funds for the BIA in the 2005 budget, coupled with a 50 percent-plus increase in funding for the Office of the Special Trustee. Bush administration officials, led by Special Trustee Ross Swimmer, have repeatedly denied that BIA service program funds have been redirected to the OST. A number of OST programs affect the BIA.

Upon its passage in the Senate, the $820 billion budget for 2004 - most of it automatically committed by law, leaving only $328 billion for lawmakers to tussle over - went to President Bush for his signature. With that it becomes law almost four months beyond its scheduled activation date of Oct. 1, 2003 - an embarrassment for majority party Republicans, who regularly criticized Democrat-controlled chambers for overshooting the budget due date.

Democrats stalled the bill one last time after the 108th Congress reconvened on Jan. 20. Democrats strongly disagree with a number of the bill's provisions, including its numerous special projects for specific congressional constituencies. The temptation to make hay of those in a presidential election year ran strong. But with a provisionary spending resolution set to expire Jan. 31 and the Republican camp unyielding on a host of budgetary items, the choice was to try and pass another continuing resolution or risk shutting down the government - a tactic thought to have damaged Republicans badly in the 1996 presidential election year.

The omnibus bill funds Indian programs across 11 federal departments and many agencies. But it will not fund Alaska Native villages with fewer than 25 residents, nor others with more than 25 in relatively (for Alaska) more urbanized areas.

In addition, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, seemed to follow through in other ways on last year's promise not to forget charges of racism and racial statements leveled against him by Alaska Natives, on the basis of a false attribution it turned out, over press accounts of a radio interview in Alaska. Of course, with 220-plus Alaska Native villages engaged in federal funding decisions during a time of budgetary constraint, as well as a notably consolidation-minded president at the head of his party, Stevens may not necessarily need a revenge factor to motivate him.

In any case, Stevens inserted a rider that would overhaul Alaska Native law enforcement, court systems and local laws, all on the basis of a commission's quick review.