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Native Hawaiian housing bill gets first-round rejection

WASHINGTON - Late in the business day on March 21, the Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act fell short of a two-thirds vote in the House of Representatives. The tally meant lawmakers had rejected a motion to suspend the ordinary rules of the House and pass the bill with limited debate.

The bill received solid majority support, with 262 in favor, 162 opposed and nine not voting. The totals led advocates of the bill to believe it can be enacted under ''regular order'' of business, which permits full debate but requires only a simple majority of votes for passage, rather than the two-thirds majority required to pass a bill with limited debate.

The bill would expand the use of federal housing loan guarantees from tribes to Native Hawaiians.

No Democrat voted against the bill. Thirty-four Republicans cast yea votes, resisting pressure from GOP leadership to oppose. Among them were Reps. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, Rick Renzi and John Shadegg of Arizona, Steve Pearce of New Mexico, Don Young of Alaska, Chris Cannon of Utah, Dennis Hastert of Illinois (Speaker of the House in the last Congress), Mary Bono and Duncan Hunter of California, John Pickering of Mississippi, Christopher Shays of Connecticut and Steven LaTourette of Ohio.

Pressure to oppose the bill came in the form of a ''GOP Leader Alert'' issued from the leadership office of Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the House minority leader. The alert termed the bill, H.R. 835 in the House, ''an unconstitutional bill that would guarantee special federally-backed housing benefits to Native Hawaiians. ... HR 835 would confer on Native Hawaiians an arrangement like that between the federal government and American Indian tribes.'' Boehner cited the Rice v. Cayetano Supreme Court decision as the basis of his claim that Native Hawaiians and American Indian tribes ''are not comparable,'' leaving little doubt that Native Hawaiian-specific legislation in the House will be the subject of similar alerts in the current 110th Congress. Boehner gave the limitation on debate as another reason to oppose the bill.

In committee debate on a similarly worded amendment to the bill, Democrats disputed the interpretation and voted down the amendment.

Linda Lingle, the Republican governor of Hawaii, supports the housing bill. Her office, like Boehner's, could not be reached for comment after business hours.