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Politics were played in defeating Indian law/health amendment

WASHINGTON – A $410 billion congressional omnibus bill has passed, but not before legislators wrangled over, and ultimately weeded out a $400 million amendment that would have strengthened law enforcement, health and water initiatives in Indian country.

The Senate voted in favor of the bill March 10, following the House’s earlier passage. The legislation includes money to keep the federal government running, along with funds earmarked for certain legislative pet projects.

The good news for Indian country is that the bill includes approximately $6 billion for the BIA and IHS, an increase of 5.7 percent from current budget levels.

But the process involved in passing the bill also illustrated that legislators from both sides of the aisle are more than willing to play politics with desperately needed funding for tribes.

As the Senate was on the brink of passing the legislation, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., inserted an amendment aimed at redirecting $400 million in federal grants to tribal law enforcement and health programs.

The senator led the charge last summer to get a $2 billion authorization bill passed focused on Indian law enforcement and health issues, so his insertion was not surprising. His staff had been telling Indian Country Today for months that he would make moves to get funds appropriated, rather than just authorized.

When Democrats saw the amendment, they balked, since their congressional leadership had said it would not be accepting any amendments to the bill.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., argued that the BIA and IHS would receive roughly $7 billion as a result of the recently passed stimulus law combined with budget funding, sans Thune’s amendment.

“That is a great deal of money,” said the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.

Thune’s amendment was one of several that played a role in slowing passage of the budget-focused legislation. Some Democrats said Republicans were inserting amendments in an attempt to lengthen debate and make Democrats seem disorganized.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, went so far as to say on the Senate floor that Thune had blindsided him.

“I had not been aware of this amendment proposed by Sen. Thune,” Dorgan said. “I don’t know with whom Sen. Thune talked about it. He did not visit with me.”

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Ironically, it is Dorgan who has often argued for increased spending for a variety of tribal projects, but the congressional leadership’s hard line stance against amendments ended up seeing him fighting against this one.

Dorgan’s rationale was partially that Thune’s original amendment would have redirected $90 million out of current Indian programs to help pay for law enforcement and health provisions. Thune ended up modifying his amendment so that it became an across-the-board redistribution of funds from a broad array of programs in the overall bill.

Dorgan noted that the redirections were small, but said that even limited changes to funds designated for Indian health and housing programs were not worth it.

The senator did not explain on the floor why he would not work to support the other millions of dollars he didn’t have problems with in the amendment. But staffers noted that House leaders said any amendment would put the entire bill at risk, so Dorgan’s support of Thune’s amendment could have ended up quashing all the increased Indian country funding in the bill.

Dorgan concluded on the floor by saying he was anxious to work with Thune and others to find a way to fund enhanced Indian law enforcement and health provisions, such as those called for by the amendment.

In an interview with ICT, Thune indicated that Dorgan was not being completely forthcoming.

“I did mention to him on the [Senate] floor earlier in the week what I was doing,” Thune said. “To say that anybody was caught off guard, I just don’t think is accurate.”

Thune said it was not his intention to put the entire omnibus bill at risk by offering the amendment.

“I thought it was the right thing to do,” Thune said. “We’re supposed to offer amendments to help make these bills better. This would have been better for Indian country. It was a fair approach.”

Thune said, too, that Dorgan’s arguments about the cost of redirecting funds literally do not add up in terms of Indian health provisions. He said that the $1 million the amendment called for in redirection of Indian health funds would have ended up getting Indian country an additional $25 million in health-focused funds as a result of redistributions from non-Indian programs.

Thune noted that 25 Republicans voted for the amendment, and he said more would have if they thought it would have been given the chance to pass by Democratic congressional leadership. Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., was the lone Democrat who crossed the aisle to provide support.

“Politics is politics out here,” Thune assessed. “We’ll live to fight another day. We’ll keep pitching. But this was a great opportunity.”

The Senate voted in favor of the bill March 10, following the House’s earlier passage. President Barack Obama signed it into law the following day. The legislation includes money to keep the federal government running, along with funds earmarked for certain legislative pet projects.