Rally for health care reauthorization finds supporters

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WASHINGTON - Room 211 on the Senate side of the U.S. Capitol used to be the office of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and it's so well-known as the LBJ room that you can actually confuse people by asking for Senate 211.

The former president has never gotten full credit for piloting some of the Indian-specific programs that grew to prominence under other presidents. So if his ghost was around on Sept. 12, it must have been smiling to see more than 100 American Indians and Alaska Natives, and a handful of congressional members, crowding the smallish quarters as they called for some of the basic rights and services that make for a great society. A rally for reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, stalemated so far in three previous Congresses, had succeeded in bringing a world of spirit to the priority issue of Indian country in the current 110th Congress.

One of the longest-serving warriors for health care reauthorization, Rachel Joseph of the Tribal National Steering Committee on reauthorization, warmed up an audience that included many of the leading individuals, organizations, tribes and lawmakers in health care, from the Navajo Nation to H. Sally Smith of the National Indian Health Board, from the National Congress of American Indians to James Crouch of the California Rural Indian Health Board, from the National Council of Urban Indian Health to Sens. Byron Dorgan and Daniel Inouye of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Following Joseph, Smith and Joe Garcia, the NCAI president, Rosebud Sioux Tribe councilman Robert Moore found a clearing on the carpet. Unexpectedly to anyone who hadn't found the time or elbow room to read the agenda, Moore launched his trained singing voice on the national anthem. Alternating soft tenor passages with the familiar soaring phrases, Moore seemed to lift the room itself about a foot off the ground, and it's safe to say there was no climbing down after that - not with one congressional member after another putting on a game face and vowing to get the job done, each to louder cheers than the one before.

The man of the hour was Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., whose Senate Finance Committee had just passed a bill that set the stage for a floor vote of the full Senate on Indian health care reauthorization. But Baucus deflected attention to the labors of Dorgan, who in turn gave the floor to Inouye, an equally dedicated predecessor as chairman of the SCIA.

Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., came over from the House of Representatives to say his committee will move a companion bill in the House before long. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, representing some of the Republican support the bill will require to become law in a closely divided Congress, acknowledged the efforts of her fellow Alaskans, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young. Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., answered a call to the microphone from fellow New Mexican Joe Garcia, and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., basked in the applause that has greeted him often since the Indian vote in Montana gave him the election victory that gave Democrats majority power in the Senate.

Hurdles remain to be cleared before Indian health care reauthorization becomes law; as a couple of speakers also emphasized, it's important for Indian and Alaska Native advocates to continue educating their congressional representatives about the importance of updating Indian health care through the reauthorization process. But the bill's progress, compared against the recent past, has been considerable. Few in the room doubted, for instance, that with a Republican majority in the Senate, the majority leader would not be planning floor time on the Indian health care reauthorization bill.

But the floor leader now is a Democrat, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. ''On August first,'' Joseph said, ''Majority Leader Reid promised that if the bill is voted out of the Finance Committee - I quote, 'We will find a way to bring it to the floor. It is the right thing to do.'

''Majority Leader, Indian country is ready.''