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Murkowski on her Indian Affairs service

WASHINGTON – Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, sat down with Indian Country Today for a wide-ranging interview.

Indian Country Today: How did you come to serve on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee – were Indian issues always something you cared about, or was it sort of happenstance?

Lisa Murkowski: It was quite deliberate. When I came to the Senate in 2003, and I had my opportunity to select committees, I chose to be a member of the Indian Affairs Committee for the specific reason that of the more than 560 federally recognized tribes, you’ve got about half of them located in the state of Alaska. The constituency that I represent is composed of quite a lot of Alaska Natives. ... I wanted to be in a position where I could meet [their] needs.

ICT: What is the highlight of the committee’s work for this session?

Murkowski: When I was privileged to be made the ranking member on the Indian Affairs Committee, I sat down with Chairman Byron Dorgan [Democratic senator from North Dakota] and the purpose of the meeting was to talk about the direction of the committee. ... I was pleased at that initial sit-down that both of us concurred that our highest priority was a focus on Indian health care and how we can do a better job at providing access and quality care for Alaska Natives and American Indians.

With that commitment, we set about to advance the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization. We worked hard on that – the two of us and our respective staffs – to move that through the process. I think that the product that we moved through the Senate this past spring is a good bill, good legislation, and we are proud of it.

Murkowski wants Native White House liaison Senator shares thoughts on presidential candidates and Palin Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is voicing strong support for the creation of a White House-level position to focus exclusively on overseeing American Indian policies and issues. The vice chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs believes that such a position would help achieve many more positive developments for tribes. “It would be very helpful,” she told Indian Country Today in an interview. “We recognize that on so many issues, whether it’s health care, education, energy, there are aspects that relate to Indian country that really don’t get fleshed out or understood – unless you have somebody whose job it is to be asking, ‘How does it impact Indian country?’” Murkowski said that such a position would have been especially useful right now, as two important bills to Native America – the Indian Health Care Improvement and the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination acts – have stalled in the House of Representatives. “Sometimes on Indian issues, we just can’t seem to get the attention of large numbers of those in Congress. If there were a [White House] position right now, they would be helping us get this stuff done.” Murkowski noted that her home state of Alaska, which has many dealings with the Interior Department, employs a full-time liaison in the state government to work directly with the federal agency. The individual’s sole job is to make sure the Interior secretary takes into account the unique circumstances of Alaska when carrying out and developing policies. “That focus has helped us as a state dramatically,” she said. “If you were to have a person within the administration who is the connection, or liaison, between Indian country and the executive branch, I think you would have better relations, better understanding and better opportunities within the budgeting process.” Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain have both expressed support for a White House-level Indian liaison position. They have also said better outreach to tribes is a priority. The Democratic Party platform, released in August, includes specific language promising to create a position for a White House adviser on Indian affairs. The Republican Party platform does not contain such a provision. While the Republican platform is lacking with regard to a White House liaison, Murkowski’s support for McCain is abundant. “You have in Sen. McCain an individual who represents a large constituency of American Indians in Arizona, who has served as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, who has immersed himself in issues that relate to Indian country. “If people are looking to a leader who understands their issues, they really have to give serious consideration to Sen. McCain for all that he has done and his breadth of knowledge.” On Obama, the senator from Alaska said she hasn’t looked in-depth at his record or stances on policies that might impact Indian country. Murkowski also spoke a bit on McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has been something of a political foe to the Murkowski family ever since she defeated Lisa Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski, in his bid for re-election as governor of Alaska in 2006. The senator said it’s tough to say how Palin has performed on Indian issues in Alaska, since almost every broad issue – energy, the environment, education, health – connects in some substantial way with Alaska Natives. She said that Palin’s appointment of an energy czar and the implementation of a subcommittee on climate change are both gubernatorial developments that could be viewed as positive developments for large numbers of Alaska Natives. “Keep in mind that Gov. Palin is married to a man who is part Native from out in the Bristol Bay area.” The senator also said she would never hesitate to pick up the phone to talk Indian shop with Palin. “I think she’s a little bit busy right now, so probably not right at the moment,” she said with a laugh. “Were she to be part of this next administration as vice president to McCain, I think it would be very helpful for those who are trying to understand some of the challenges that face Alaska Natives."

ICT: Yet the House hasn’t moved on the IHCIA bill. Any insights on why?

Murkowski: There’s an abortion provision in there. All I can tell you is that there has been hesitation on the part of the House to advance this. To think that we could lose all that we have put into this reauthorization in terms of what should be made available to Alaska Natives and American Indians … to throw away all of the good work in the legislation that has been worked by so many for so long … to have it be held up over one or two issues is very, very unfortunate. If there is only one sticking point that is out there, let’s figure out if that sticking point needs to be thrown overboard, so that we don’t scuttle the whole bill.

ICT: Do you think the abortion language is the sticking point? [The language bars the use of federal funds to perform abortions except in certain situations.]

Murkowski: Let’s just say if it were the abortion issue – if that’s the only thing out there that is holding this back – we have got to be better than this. We have got to be able to say, “Let’s figure this out.”

ICT: Included in the Senate’s version of the IHCIA is a national apology based on past federal government misdeeds toward tribes and Indians, which was pushed for by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan. Do you personally support an apology?

Murkowski: I have no problem at all with that.

ICT: How do you feel about the management of the IHS? [A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in June identified more than 5,000 lost or stolen property items from 2004 to 2007 alone, estimated by the GAO to be worth almost $16 million.]

Murkowski: I will say at the outset that there are good people with good intentions who work at IHS. ... I think what we’ve learned is that there are systems in place that simply do not work. If they don’t work ... it does make me wonder. ... Even if we were to direct more funding their way, you have to wonder if that is sufficient. ... We also need to recognize that what we are asking to be done within IHS is a tall order because they are operating at a deficiency in terms of funding, staffing, adequate training.

ICT: Some tribes are requesting copays from Indians seeking services at their IHS-funded facilities, citing the lack of funds from IHS; but national IHS leaders, including director Robert McSwain, don’t agree with the practice. What do you think?

Murkowski: I concur with Mr. McSwain that requiring copays was not what was contemplated when the trust responsibility deal was made to provide health care to those in Indian country. ... I think we need to take it back to the original promise that the federal government shall provide for a level of health care for Alaska Natives and American Indians – without mentioning anything about copayments.

ICT: But then some tribes will ask, “Isn’t it within our sovereign rights to request copays?”

Murkowski: The way that we finessed it through the IHCIA legislation was to give tribes the option of whether or not to seek copayments. But there is no requirement of it.

ICT: What are your thoughts on the stall of the reauthorization of the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act in the House due to the Cherokee freedmen controversy? [Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have said they will block reauthorization unless the freedmen dispute is settled to their liking; the Senate passed the bill in May.]

Murkowski: Congress has been so close to advancing that legislation, which we recognize as incredibly important. ... It has been held up, or delayed, in the House, but I remain hopeful that on NAHASDA, we will be able to advance that this year.

ICT: How well do you get along with Senator Dorgan in terms of your goals for Indian country?

Murkowski: I feel that we have a very good working relationship with Senator Dorgan and with his staff. We work well together – there are no surprises. ... I think we work together as a team, which benefits Indian country. ... I don’t think you’re seeing partisan politics getting in the way when it comes to the actual working of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. That is very, very good for us. And I’m pleased to be part of a committee that takes that approach. I think that has helped us make major accomplishments, and there will be more to come.