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Priorities of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

An interview with Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., SCIA chairman

Part two

WASHINGTON - For the first time since 2003, a Democratic chairman will take up the gavel of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has been a member of Congress since 1980, in the Senate since 1992. He also chairs the Democratic Policy Committee and has a seat on the Senate Native American Caucus. At all times during his tenure on Capitol Hill, he has been an advocate of Indian causes; but in speaking numerous times on the Senate floor of the need for Indian health care funding, while addressing the challenges and opportunities of Indian health still more often in committee, Dorgan has made Indian health care his top preoccupation. The following is the second part of an interview on the priorities of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Indian Country Today: Right now, with the reform of earmarks that has rolled funding of many programs nationally back to 2006 levels, the National American Indian Housing Council is in real distress over funding. Do you see any help forthcoming as the budget process moves forward?

Dorgan: ... The new fiscal year [2008] will start October 1, and we're going to try really hard to get the new [federal domestic spending] bills done, so seven months from now I think we'll be able to see some earmark funding and some new accounts dealing with these issues, including housing. ... But that earmark reform is just elimination of earmarks for this period. It does not apply to October 1 [fiscal year 2008] and I would expect that there will be some earmarks in legislation starting next October 1.

ICT: There's much more to Indian health care than the reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, but that is something that tribes have placed high on their list. Is there a good chance of that being reauthorized as long as the current administration is in place? Because I hear that they have real problems with liabilities when you bring in traditional healers. But committee structure under a Democratic majority in Congress seems to set up favorably for reauthorization.

Dorgan: It does.

ICT: Can you handicap it for us? Is there a good chance of this getting through as long as this Republican administration is in place?

Dorgan: We've had a lot of experience with this administration, and every time we resolve an objection they've raised, they come up with a new objection. I know the liability issue is something that's important, but the fact is they've found a hundred reasons to oppose this, from several different agencies, and I think it's unbelievable that we can't get the kind of cooperation I believe we should get, on a bipartisan basis, to get this done. It's going to be a high priority for me to try to get this through the Congress. I've given I don't know how many speeches, probably five or six speeches, on the floor of the Senate, talking about this issue just because I think it's so important. I talk about, you know, the woman that's hauled in on a gurney having a heart attack, to a hospital, with a letter taped to her leg saying, ''By the way, contract health isn't going to pay for this, you're on your own.'' ... I had a tribal chair stand up at a listening session in Minneapolis and say, ''We were out of contract health funds in January.'' So, for the rest of the year, it's life or limb. You can be awfully sick, your life may not be at stake, or you may not be at risk of losing a limb, but you can be very, very sick and contract health is out of money. ''Sorry, you're out of luck.'' And that's unbelievable to me. That's called health care rationing, and it's going on, on Indian reservations. So this is going to be a big priority, and an important one.

ICT: Does the new lay of the landscape in Congress, with the Democrats in the majority, help there?

Dorgan: I hope so. I believe so. I think it represents more of an interest. But this should be a bipartisan initiative. It was for Senator McCain [R-Ariz., former chairman of the SCIA] and myself [then the ranking Democrat on the committee], working together. I hope that these will be bipartisan initiatives, and I hope we can convince the administration to stop objecting. I mean, every time we resolved one of their objections they raised a new one on Indian health care issues.

ICT: On education, with the passage of the law last year, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act - is that going to translate into a larger emphasis in this session on language preservation and immersion learning schools? Is that going to result in proposals that could get some funding into language preservation and immersion learning?

Dorgan: I hope so. I supported that and felt it was a priority. You know the appropriations process is always more difficult than the authorization process. Authorizing [funds] is easy; appropriating is more difficult. But I believe it should be a priority and I'm going to continue to work to make it that.

ICT: Teacher recruitment and student loan forgiveness? I know they were part of your priorities going into the last Congress, but how far did they get and will they be on your agenda this year?

Dorgan: They will be on the agenda this year. Senator Conrad [D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee] and I just introduced a bill dealing with tribal colleges and loan forgiveness. ... The thing is, not much got done. Last year was completely dysfunctional in the Congress ... I mean, completely dysfunctional. So we got, I think, a fairly impressive list of things done in the Senate, only to find that it went nowhere in the House, unfortunately. ... At least in the House of Representatives, issues affecting Native Americans were not a priority for them. It wasn't as if we couldn't get them passed in the Senate. We did. We got a fair amount passed on a bipartisan basis in our committees, fair amount in the Senate, but just couldn't get them through the House. And I think it's just - it's a matter of will. I don't think they felt it was a priority. ... The only way you get these things done is to get strong Republicans and strong Democrats to work together and say we're going to make this happen.