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Native Hawaiian bill faces Bush opposition in the House

WASHINGTON - After relying on mischaracterizations from proxies outside of government and in the conservative press to attack the Akaka Bill in past years, the executive office of President Bush launched a frontal assault on it Oct. 22.

Shortly after the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives scheduled floor time for H.R. 505, the Office of Management and Budget issued a strong statement of administration policy against the bill, which would authorize a Native Hawaiian governing entity as a first step toward federal recognition of Native Hawaiians. Proponents contend the federal recognition of Native Hawaiians would complete the framework of U.S. governmental relations with indigenous peoples, begun among tribes and Alaska Native villages.

The Bush administration insists it would create race-based governance and abandon the ''melting pot,'' the traditional metaphor for blending many peoples into one nation. ''This bill would reverse this great American tradition and divide the governing institutions of this country by race. If H.R. 505 were presented to the President, his senior advisors would recommend he veto the bill. ... The Administration strongly opposes any bill that would formally divide sovereign United States power along suspect lines of race and ethnicity.''

Patricia Zell, of Zell and Cox Law in Washington, is a longtime advocate of the Akaka Bill. (The reference is to Sen. Daniel Akaka, the bill's sponsor in the Senate. The companion bill in the House has been introduced and shepherded along by Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii. The entire Hawaii congressional delegation, a wide majority of state legislators and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, supports the bill.)

Of the administration's contention that ''substantial historical and cultural differences between Native Hawaiians as a group and members of federally recognized tribes'' make federal recognition ''unwise'' and constitutionally weak, Zell said the same differences can be found between federally recognized tribes of different regions, for instance the Southeast and Northwest, or California and the East Coast. Such differences have not restrained Congress from recognizing tribes in different regions, she added, because the same Native-specific issues apply to various tribes and peoples.

Indigenous peoples, including Native Hawaiians, have consistently been called ''Indians'' at the time of first contact, she added, undermining the administration's stated concern about the Constitution and its reference to ''Indian tribes.''

With the scheduling of the bill for debate in the House Oct. 24, a potential amendment came to light from Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., as follows: ''Nothing in this Act shall relieve any sovereign entity within the jurisdiction of the United States, including a Native Hawaiian governing authority, from complying with the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment to the United States Constitution.''

The Native Hawaiian bill passed the House on Oct. 24. Flake did not offer his amendment as written, and the Rules Committee did not permit him to revise it. He offered a longer version that was less controversial for tribes as a motion to ''recommit,'' and it was defeated.