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Procedural vote stalls Akaka Bill in Senate

WASHINGTON – Native Hawaiians will remain the only aboriginal inhabitants of the United States without federal recognition, following a procedural setback in the Senate to the Akaka Bill’s chances of enactment in the current 109th Congress.

The bill could not proceed in the Senate without 60 votes in favor, and it fell short on June 8 by a tally of 56 – 41. The bill’s backers had counted on surmounting procedural obstacles and sending the bill to a full debate and floor vote on the merits, which would have required a simple majority of 51 votes for passage. From a standpoint of realpolitik, that prospect is doubtful now.

The bill, informally known after its lead sponsor, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, seeks to authorize a process for extending federal recognition to a Native Hawaiian governing entity. The senator’s staff attributed its downfall to political maneuvers that emanated from Republican leadership in the Senate and the White House of President George W. Bush.

“The administration went a long way, last minute, to make sure this bill didn’t pass that procedural vote,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, Akaka’s press secretary, adding, “The central issue of Native Hawaiian recognition didn’t get a hearing. They didn’t vote on the substance of this bill.”

Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has given the bill his strong backing. In a statement dated June 8, the day of the vote, Inouye termed the Bush administration “grossly disingenuous” for circulating a letter the evening of June 7 on the subject of Senate Bill 147, as the Akaka Bill was numbered on its introduction in the 109th Congress. “We all knew – the White House knew, the Republican opposition knew – that the legislation had been reworked to address all concerns, and that the result was S. 3064.”

But Republican leadership denied Akaka’s effort to substitute S. 3064 for S. 147 and consider it as “original text,” then used the administration’s letter to urge a vote against S. 147, Inouye’s statement maintains. Minus the negotiated agreements, reflected in S. 3064, that addressed the administration’s stated concerns with S. 147, the bill didn’t have the backing Akaka had counted on.

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Among the favorable votes Akaka expected was that of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Graham co-sponsored the Akaka Bill but didn’t cast a vote June 8. His staff issued a statement to the effect that Graham, despite a 98 percent voting record on other legislative items, simply didn’t make it to the Senate floor in time to cast a vote on this particular item.

Dela Cruz noted that prior to the failed June 8 vote to invoke “cloture” and proceed with the Akaka Bill, the majority-Republican Senate had cast similar failed votes on two GOP priorities: the marriage amendment against gay weddings and repeal of the estate tax. Dela Cruz declined to provide detail as to why that mattered. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., sponsored the estate tax repeal measure. For much of 2003 and 2004, Kyl prevented the Akaka Bill from proceeding in the Senate. Noe Kalipi, of Akaka’s staff, said Republican leadership in the Senate scheduled the Akaka Bill for a vote following those on the marriage amendment and on the estate tax for strategic reasons, in particular because Kyl might need their votes. Cloture requires a supermajority of 60 votes, meaning both parties have to attract votes from across the aisle to invoke cloture and move a stalled bill to the Senate floor.

The gamesmanship within the halls of Congress around the Akaka Bill may not be known in full granular detail for some time, but outside of Washington the forces ranged against it were anything but subtle. Once it became apparent that enough Republican senators would defy party pressure to give the bill a chance of getting to an up-or-down majority vote, editorial pages and online outlets began to teem with disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, only occasionally impeded by accuracy. The main thrust of many and various glaring errors was to confuse the indigenous people of Hawaii with ethnic populations, and the proposed Native Hawaiian governing entity with tribal governments.

Scarcely any more credible were direct assaults on Akaka’s age and competence – outrages upon a legacy that includes passage of the monumental Apology Resolution of the United States Congress to Native Hawaiians for the federal role in overthrowing the Native monarchy of old Hawaii. Akaka is up for re-election this year. The November election is considered safe for any Democrat, but first the candidate must pass the test of a September Democratic primary.

“That’s what’s sad, is that people would make this about politics when the senator has been working on this [Akaka Bill] for years,” Dela Cruz said. “This is far beyond politics for the senator. This is about justice.”

She said the next step for Akaka is to look ahead and take strategic bearings for the bill, either yet this year or in the 110th Congress, beginning in 2007. Inouye, in the statement on his Web site, said next steps would not be made public immediately because of the scheming directed against the Akaka Bill. He saluted Akaka’s “tireless efforts” to move it, as well as those Republicans who withstood “intense pressure” to vote for advancing the bill.