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Legislative review

Major bills stake out positions before Congress' August recess

WASHINGTON - Four major pieces of Indian-specific legislation improved their chances of passage just before Congress adjourned for its traditional August recess. Advocates of each bill consider early positioning vital in the current 110th Congress, which is likely to see its second year consumed by the priorities of the 2008 presidential election. In a scenario spelled out by several issue advocates in separate interviews, the Senate and House of Representatives will become less hospitable places for compromise as the election year draws near; depending on how the political dynamics play out, congressional members will become less willing to negotiate and ''give someone else a victory'' that could be felt in the presidential campaigns.

That doesn't mean 2008 will be devoid of legislation. But it makes September, October, November and December a crucial opening for the enactment of laws on their own merits.

A scattering of legislative items affecting single tribes are at various stages before Congress. But four bills of large significance, with across-the-board impact on all tribes, have reached the August recess with improved prospects for passage, though considerable work remains to be done on all counts. They are the national Head Start bill and its set-aside funding for Indian Head Start programs, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization bill, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act reauthorization bill, and a bill to clarify tribal tax-exempt bond issuing authority.

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A Head Start bill has been passed in both the House and the Senate. Key staff in both chambers are talking about the differences between the bills, and progress between them will take place in August even though a formal ''conference committee'' of congressional members (appointed to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of a bill) may or may not be officially installed before Congress reconvenes Sept. 4.

On the table for Indian country is permanent ''set-aside'' funding of 4 percent of overall Head Start funding in the Senate version, and of 3.5 percent in the House version. The House bill would make new funding available immediately, but would also make it conditional on a study by the Secretary of Health and Human Services that would risk a finding of ''status quo'' funding for the Indian set-aside. That would cancel out any gain in funding over the current fiscal year. In addition, because of the influx of funding to Indian and Hispanic Head Start programs, some ''slots'' in other Head Start programs would be defunded, a direct loss of services to children. Indian Head Start directors are very uncomfortable gaining dollars at the expense of other programs, according to one of their Washington lobbyists.

The Senate version offers new funding, with a permanent set-aside for Indian Head Starts of 4 percent and no lost ''slots'' for others. It is the preferred bill in Indian country, with the backing of the National Indian Head Start Directors Association, the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association, United South and Eastern Tribes, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, the National Alliance to Save Native Languages, and Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. But their allies are hard-pressed to assemble the votes that would pass the Senate bill. A compromise proposal would designate 50 percent of any new funding to Indian and Hispanic Head Starts, and 50 percent to other priority set-aside Head Starts.

Another alternative is for Indian Head Start programs, which have always accepted funding through the set-aside in the overall Head Start bill, to ask the House and Senate Appropriations committees to designate more funding for them directly.

Though Indian Head Starts have gotten most of what they've asked for in the national Head Start reauthorization, a moral dilemma remains over set-aside funding. For perhaps as many as 10 years, the Department of Health and Human Services has transferred funding from the Indian and Hispanic priority set-aside to urban Head Start programs in order to ''hold them harmless'' from loss of funds as their program efficiency has improved. Key committee personnel on Capitol Hill recognize a fundamental injustice. But their message to Indian country is that while Indian country may be morally right, there is just no rallying the votes in Congress to make full amends. Indian Head Starts have gone for a morally correct position, only to find themselves up against extremely difficult politics.