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New Congress, new look

WASHINGTON -With election results finally counted and certified in all 50 states, the federal government is ready to begin business for the year 2001.

President-elect Bush formally began his transition into the presidency and the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are preparing leadership positions and committee and subcommittee seats.

Along with this preparation on Capitol Hill is an assessment by tribal governments of how this new picture in Washington will be handled and who will be the new players in the 107th Congress.

"We must remain calm, stay focused, and be politically savvy in our approach in dealing with the new administration and the next Congress," said Susan Masten, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairwoman of the Yurok Tribe in California.

"With all the recent political divisiveness that has been created in Washington, D.C., it is essential that we develop a united, coordinated strategy in dealing with both the administration and Congress."

After important victories at the polls for Indian country in November elections, including defeat of Republican Sen. Slade Gorton in Washington state and election of Democrat Brad Carson, a Cherokee Nation tribal member, to a U.S. Congressional seat in Oklahoma, a new political playing field has emerged. The Senate is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans and Republican control of the House has been weakened, giving the long-outnumbered Democrats a foothold for pushing their agenda in the upcoming the session.

Important assignments in committee and subcommittee seats and leadership positions are expected to change what many tribes have come to know as the norm since the Republican takeover of Congress following the 1994 elections. With some prominent Republicans leaving after defeat or retirement, key committee seats dealing with Indian affairs and tribal issues will be occupied by new policy makers, some familiar and some not so familiar to Indian country.

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In the House of Representatives, Don Young, R-Alaska, will be replaced as chairman of the all important Committee on Resources by Rep. James Hanson, R-Utah. Elected in 1980, Hanson was former chairman of the Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Lands. His record on Indian issues is mixed, being an outspoken advocate for public access to federal lands and opposed to tribal efforts to restrict that use for cultural or religious reasons.

Rep. Joe Skeen, R-N.M., will succeed Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Pa., as chairman of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee. Elected in 1974, Skeen's congressional district includes both Laguna Pueblo and the Mescalero Apache. He was a soil and water engineer for Zuni Pueblo and the Ramah Navajo in the 1950s. Skeen is said to also be close to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., considered by some a friend to Indian country.

Congressman-elect Carson has yet to be assigned to any committee. However, as a newly elected member of the House and a freshman he will unlikely hold any leadership position.

In the Senate, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., is expected to retain his seat as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs unless he receives a cabinet appointment in the Bush administration. A number of tribal leaders are pushing for him to assume the role of secretary of the Interior.

With the defeat of Gorton, Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., is expected to take over as chairman of the Subcommittee on Interior Appropriations. Elected in 1988, Burns has been a longtime friend to many in Indian country and especially close to tribes in Montana. Many see the departure of Gorton from this important subcommittee as a major step forward for tribes in receiving appropriations free of riders long perceived as anti-Indian.

"Tribal governments have found themselves in a defensive posture in past Congresses with Sen. Gorton leading the charge on many anti-Indian initiatives," Masten said. "The defeat of Sen. Gorton is a victory for Indian country. Politicians will engage in greater deliberations before advancing any anti-Indian legislation which singles us out for vicious attacks on our tribal sovereign rights to govern ourselves and our affairs."

Although much has changed in Congress following the elections, tribal leaders like Masten say many of the core issues and players remain the same. They say tribes need to continue to work with both parties to facilitate development of a pro-active legislative agenda that will improve federal policies for Indian nations.

The 107th Congress will convene at noon Jan. 3 for the swearing in of newly elected senators and representatives. On Jan. 5 the new Congress will hold a joint session to count the electoral votes.