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Senate shakeup and the Indian policy agenda

It takes a lot to raise an eyebrow among the savvy and jaded of official Washington, but one senator's political switch stood their hair on end and knocked the party of the White House off its government-issue furniture.

You know the story. Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords upset the Senate's 50-50 balance May 24, when he traded in his Republican credentials, declared himself an Independent and said he would organize with the Democrats.

This made the Democrats the majority party in the Senate, by one, 50-49, with one to spare, for the purpose of running and staffing the committees. The Democrats will have the last word on each panel's legislative and investigative agenda, as well as on when and if the whole Senate votes on policy, money and nominations.

These are powers that the Democrats must exercise with care, to avoid being branded as mere obstructionists and to avoid alienating those whose support they need to actually accomplish something.

As a general matter, the Democratic takeover strengthens the hand of moderate Republicans in both Houses and in the Bush administration, while amplifying the voice of conservative Democrats.

Mainly, it slows the conservative juggernaut from warp speed to the regular pace of Capitol Hill, where time is measured in both election cycles and the minutes it takes to get a call returned.

With the breathtakingly narrow margin of difference between the majority and minority, both parties will have to build coalitions around discrete issues. No vote can be taken for granted. Ties will be broken by Vice President Dick Cheney, who remains president of the Senate and is ostentatiously available in his offices in the Senate, House and the White House.

It will take enormous skill for policymakers to maneuver through this tight maze of checks and balances and checkmates. The result could be greater civility and more reasoned policies, or maybe not.

The danger is that each party will use its clout to block the other, making gridlock and finger-pointing the hallmark of the 107th Congress.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has long experience in developing policies across party lines and its transition is expected to be relatively seamless. Senators Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., will switch positions to become the committee's chairman and vice chairman, respectively.

The committee's unique structure supports the theory that federal Indian policy should be non-partisan or, at worst, bipartisan. Inouye wisely set up the panel that way when he first ran it in 1987 and has served as either its chairman or vice chairman since then.

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Legislation to improve health conditions and educational opportunities for Native Americans will continue to top the Senate's American Indian agenda. The committee plans to examine diabetes and other critical problems in Indigenous communities in upcoming hearings.

Sen. Max S. Baucus, D-Mont., has been crafting an Indian country economic development measure involving tax incentives. This takes on greater significance, now that he is poised to become chairman of the Finance Committee.

In the week before Memorial Day, the White House flooded the Senate with its nominations, hoping for confirmations before the political ground shifted completely. Among them was the nomination for Neal McCaleb, Chickasaw, for Interior's assistant secretary for Indian affairs. His confirmation hearing will be conducted by the Committee on Indian Affairs, where no transition-related delays are anticipated.

What does all this mean for specific Indigenous peoples?

For the Gwich'in People, it is likely that the porcupine caribou herd's calving area in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be safe from drilling for this political season.

In anticipation of being named as the new majority leader, Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, D-S.D., wasted no time in pronouncing the White House's energy plan to develop ANWR as DOA in the reorganized Senate.

The White House and Alaska Sens. Ted Stevens and Frank H. Murkowski, both Republicans, will continue to try to open ANWR, but their chances are not as good today as they were in May. Alaska Natives who support oil and gas exploration in ANWR should not look for their royalty checks in the mail anytime soon.

For Native Hawaiians, the chances are greatly improved for organizing as a federally recognized Native government.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, is the sponsor of a Native Hawaiian sovereignty bill before the Indian committee. Akaka is one of its 14 members and, of course, Hawaii's senior senator now is chairman. The House version of the legislation was reported favorably by the Resources Committee in May.

As titles, offices and letterheads are being changed, Indigenous Peoples need to work with those in Congress who are more interested in the art of government than in the game of politics. This is the way to advance a substantive American Indian policy agenda and to protect items from being used as trade beads.

An important thing to keep in mind is that these are not ordinary political times. Remember before the national election, when lots of folks said their vote didn't count? That's not something you hear these days.

Since the 107th Congress organized in January, each side has muscled votes based on a bare majority, discounting minority views. Increasingly, the sentiment was heard that Senator X or Y was only one of 100 and did not matter much. That's not something you are likely to hear around Capitol Hill or the White House for a good long while.