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Day of reckoning in the Senate for health bill approaches

WASHINGTON - The Senate has scheduled a full day of debate Jan. 22 on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization bill, S. 1200 by number. If the bill survives debate and hostile amendments, a final vote on it could occur toward evening, at approximately 5:30 p.m. according to schedule. The latest word on Capitol Hill is that because of difficulty scheduling floor time for a subsequent unrelated bill, consideration of S. 1200 could extend into Jan. 23.

If the bill bogs down over hostile amendments or a filibuster (unlimited debate as a delaying tactic), it is unlikely to get another chance in the crowded legislative schedule of a presidential election year, said Adam McMullin, communications director for the National Congress of American Indians.

The second session of the current 110th Congress opens in earnest Jan. 22, and S. 1200 is the first bill the Senate will take up. Congressional members will just be coming off the long Christmas season recess and the Jan. 21 Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday. ;'They'll be traveling, they'll be flying in,'' McMullin said.

The presidential primaries, with a possibly decisive slate of delegates up for grabs in Florida Jan. 29 and in many states Feb. 5, could prove the larger distraction for some members, including Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, co-sponsors of the bill who are also the leading candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Both camps have said they will monitor the bill's progress. An Obama spokesman said he will get to Washington to cast his vote if it is needed; in an interview months ago, Clinton implied as much for herself. Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a conference call with reporters Jan. 18 that Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a leading GOP candidate for president, will also return from the campaign trail to Washington and cast a vote for the bill if necessary. Dorgan said he is in touch with each of the candidates. He expects the bill to pass by a comfortable margin, he said.

A leading concern is that not enough senators may make it to the Senate floor to provide the 60 votes required to overcome a filibuster and vote down hostile amendments, McMullin said. NCAI, the National Indian Health Board, other Native-issue organizations and lobbyists are engaged in a mobilization campaign, he acknowledged. Its goal is to get as many Native people as possible to urge their senators to attend the Jan. 22 session and cast votes in favor of S. 1200 and against any amendments.

''The game plan is to get as many Democrats here [to the Senate Jan. 22] as we can, and not distracted, and as many Republicans,'' said Jacqueline Johnson, NCAI executive director.

''Let's make this year a year of action,'' she added. ''Let's start by passing this Indian Health Care Improvement Act.''

The reauthorization effort has met with Republican resistance in four consecutive Congresses. Health services for urban Indians have been a point of contention for a Republican faction, and Johnson said they remain one. ''They're still in the group of concerns that some members still have.''

She said NCAI will be ''living and breathing'' the bill through Jan. 22, urging congressional members to cast off amendments and close down debate in time to take a final vote.

The full Senate has not debated an Indian-specific bill separate of other issues in decades, according to NCAI. Most Indian-specific legislation comes before the Senate in the form of unanimous consent motions, but Johnson said the bill was not going to get unanimous consent because of objections to it among some members. The bill will get floor time because Sen. Harry Reid, D.-Nev., the Senate majority leader, scheduled it for floor time, she said, adding that Sen. Dorgan has also made tireless efforts to secure floor time for the bill and win its passage.