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Daschle Steps up for Indian Country

Throughout the 25 years Tom Daschle has been in Congress, he has always
been a friend to Indian country. Over the last two years that friendship
has matured and grown even stronger. The Democratic leader in the United
States Senate had emerged as someone willing to use his clout, his time,
and his talents to tackle complex and difficult issues surrounding Indian
trust reform.

Fixing the trust system is clearly among his top priorities. He does more
than pay lip service to the problems we face. He has taken concrete steps
to force the debate and to demand real solutions to the problem. Let me
recite just a partial list of the steps he has taken in the last couple of
years to address and resolve the trust fund debacle.

First and foremost, Senator Daschle has insisted upon an Indian-led
approach to resolving this issue. He has repeatedly stated that he will
only support a trust reform proposal that has the support of Indian
stakeholders. He has led the charge to prevent the Bush Administration from
imposing its current plan. Following are just a few concrete examples of
his leadership on trust issues:

In 1999, the Bush administration was charging ahead with its plan to
implement the Bureau of Indian Trust Assets Management (BITAM) program
despite strong Congressional and tribal opposition. Senator Daschle
immediately went to the Senate Appropriations Committee and got that
proposal stopped.

Early last year, Senator Daschle introduced S. 1540, the "Indian Trust
Payment Equity Act." This is the only legislation that would put money on
the table and actually begin to reimburse Indian trust beneficiaries that
have been cheated by the federal government. Every other proposal out there
simply seeks to rearrange boxes on a Department of Interior (DOI)
flowchart.

Also last year, along with Senator John McCain of Arizona, Senator Daschle
introduced S. 175, the "Indian Trust Asset and Trust Fund Management and
Reform Act." This bill would establish a direct line of authority for the
management of Indian trust assets. Moreover, it would keep trust
responsibilities within the BIA rather than fracturing these
responsibilities.

In November of 2003, Congress passed a bill that allowed the Interior
Department to disregard a court order requiring an accounting of the money
owed to individual Indian account holders. Senator Daschle spoke
passionately against this bill on the floor of the Senate, saying, "The
trust fund language inserted into this conference report behind closed
doors - would ... effectively halt the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit and further
delay justice for 300,000 to as many as a half-million Indian trust fund
account holders. This provision is unconstitutional and, I believe,
unconscionable."

During the Senate debate last fall on the Interior budget, Senator Daschle
offered an amendment that would have taken all of the money that the
Administration wanted to spend on its DOI reorganization plan, and transfer
it to the Indian Health Service. It was narrowly defeated in a party-line
vote, with John McCain the only Republican in support.

In February of this year, Senator Daschle delivered the keynote address to
the annual meeting of the National Congress of American Indians. He used
that speech to criticize delays in the accounting and distribution of trust
assets, and outlined three steps to move this process forward: a set of
comprehensive Senate hearings to hear from tribal leaders on trust reform;
an end to congressional meddling in the Cobell litigation; and action on
legislation that would immediately create an adequate trust find to begin
making payments to trust holders.

Finally, on March 10, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee held an oversight
hearing to discuss the Administration's proposed reorganization plan for
major agencies and functions related to Indian trust reform matters within
the Department of Interior. Although not a member of the committee, Senator
Daschle felt this issue was important enough that he appeared and testified
in person. In his testimony, he reiterated the need for action and urged
Congress to take a more active role. He suggested third-party mediation as
a possible tool to help resolve this very complex problem.

All of these actions indicate that Senator Daschle has emerged as one of
our key leaders in the Congress. I think we must work with Senator Daschle,
the Democratic Leader and our friend and leader in Congress. This may be a
rare moment in history.