WASHINGTON - Moderate Sen. Jim Jeffords, I-Vt., may have handed Indian country a silver-lined opportunity to move forward with a little more ease than first thought with the 107th Congress.
The balance of power in the U.S. Senate has shifted as Jeffords jumped from the Republican Party to become an Independent. This move gives the Democrats control of the Senate for the first time in seven years. This means the Democrats will now gain the majority leadership positions and head all committees. For Indian country this means that the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, held by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., goes to Senator Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii.
"He'll now be called chairman and I'll be called vice-chairman, but we'll continue to do what we've been doing and that's focusing on the needs of Indian country," Campbell said. "This change may mean more to other committees, but we've always shared power." Sen. Campbell said the move will not affect the committee's agenda since he and Sen. Inouye have already been sharing the role of chairman in an informal capacity.
"He chairs one hearing and I'll chair another," Campbell said. "We respect each other and share the responsibility. We're both working for the good of the tribes."
Other committee chairmanships also will change, but it will be some time before the actual benefits to Indian country take effect, tribal leaders said.
"In terms of the Bush agenda, but especially in terms of ideas and nominations coming from the Interior Department, what this means is that the Democrats will have far greater control on what issues are heard, who is confirmed and how legislation is changed to meet environmental and social concerns," said Christopher Stearns, Navajo attorney at Hobbs, Straus, Dean & Wilder.
When the new administration took office, tribal leaders gathered with their various national organizations to plan a strategy that could most effectively move American Indian issues forward in the conservative-minded Congress and White House.
As it appears, Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., a moderate will become the majority leader of the Senate. Daschle is a known quantity as a friend of Indian country and is sensitive to many of the issues affecting nations today. Daschle, along with committee chairmen, will have the power to promote legislation favorable to Indian country or stop legislation that is not. Daschle comes from a state where 10 percent of the population is American Indian.
"As a registered Democrat, I am pleasantly surprised to hear the news that the leadership in the U.S. Senate will change to the Democrats. While the majority/minority margin is still very close, I'm hopeful that Democratic senators will continue to work closely with their Republican colleagues," said Edward T. Begay, speaker of the Navajo Nation.
"Of course, the Navajo Nation will continue to work closely with all members of the U.S. Senate on addressing matters and issues pertinent to the Navajo Nation and other Indian tribes. I believe the level of commitment and advocacy of the Navajo Nation's Republican delegation in the Senate won't be lessened."
The strategies many tribes planned to use may have to change, but the education of staff members and Congressmen and women will continue to be a focal point of most tribes and organizations. The tribes had worked to educate the Democratic Congress before 1994 when the Republicans took control of both the House and Senate and now many tribal leaders said some of the same people who have been educated will return to power.
"We had established relationships and been able to work on the issues and keep people more current with the issues. And then the shift to Republican control and we started the education all over," said Melanie Benjamin, chief executive officer of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.
Benjamin said tribal leaders educated elected officials from both sides, but "had a lot of Democrats in our corner.
"I realize with the new administration, we would have a lot more work getting staffers to understand issues.
"We can never let our guard down, when people are educated, we have to make decisions based on need."
As for Jeffords, he said, "Increasingly, I find myself in disagreement with my party. I understand that many people are more conservative than I am and they form the Republican Party. Given the changing nature of the national party it has become a struggle for the leaders to deal with me and indeed for me to deal with them."
Jeffords will not leave the Republican party until after the president's tax bill has been worked out between the two houses of Congress.