The lay of the landscape in the 109th Congress; ANALYSIS - PART ONE

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WASHINGTON - The lay of the legislative landscape has changed dramatically
for tribes in the 109th Congress. The prominence of the Senate in Indian
affairs has decreased in comparison with the past decade, while that of the
House of Representatives has increased.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs cannot be read out of significance,
obviously. But its retired chairman and Indian champion, Ben Nighthorse
Campbell, has been replaced by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. McCain is a
veteran of Indian affairs and an undoubted ally of tribes. But he is also a
good bet to remain on the committee only two years, and the only Indian
priority he has announced so far is continuing the investigation into the
lobbying activities of Jack Abramoff - a significant issue, but of little
practical value in terms of positive legislation and so a secondary matter
for most tribes.

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, remains on the committee. Given his long
commitment to Native issues, he will remain a serious influence there; but
he will also have to accommodate himself to a reduced role, for Senate term
limits drove him from the official committee leadership post for
minority-party Democrats. Sen. Byron Dorgan, the North Dakota Democrat,
another proven advocate for Indians, is the new committee vice chairman.

Two new Republican members of the committee, Sens. Richard Burr of North
Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, offer a bit of a wild card to
prognosticators of the committee's future. Burr comes over from the House
as a rising Republican, having defeated a strong Democratic candidate for a
seat the GOP coveted. Indians may find that issues in favor with Burr will
find a larger favor within the party, as Republicans seek ways to bolster
an important new senator.

Coburn, also a one-time member of the House, reached the Senate in a
decisive victory over Cherokee candidate Brad Carson. The campaign, nasty
enough for most tastes, was further enlivened by phobic outbursts from
Coburn - he announced at one point that Cherokees aren't real Indians. But
he may well decide that tribes are real enough to tax, a cynical turn on
the longstanding tribal desire to be treated equally with states. Until he
demonstrates otherwise, tribes should regard Coburn as a one-man danger
zone in the 109th Congress.

But for tribes, the most significant absence in the Senate this year will
be Tom Daschle's. The South Dakota Democrat, Senate Minority Leader since
the Clinton administration, was a powerful advocate for tribal interests
and just as importantly - a last line of defense against legislation that
didn't serve tribal interests. Sen. John Thune, another former House
member, ran against Daschle at the personal request of a friend and fellow
Christian warrior, President George W. Bush. His victory against the
so-called "obstructionist in chief" of the Republican agenda has won him
other friends throughout the GOP, which can be expected to support the
first-term senator in every feasible way. Curiously, Thune's potential star
power may be reflected in his exclusion from the Senate Committee on Indian
Affairs. The GOP will look for ways to reward him, just not primarily in
the spiky field of Indian-specific legislation. Yet it would be strange
indeed if a senator from one of the nation's most Indian-populous states
didn't take a significant interest in Indian affairs. Tribes may yet find
that Thune doesn't have to be on the Senate's Indian committee to prove
himself a friend in need. As the session gathers steam, they may find
themselves turning to him to get their agendas moved.

Daschle's replacement as Senate Minority Leader, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada,
will oppose Republicans where he must, but he will not form a last line of
defense for Indians. He simply won't be out there on the point for tribes
as Daschle was, his style being much more close to the vest.

Gaming tribes had better get ready. The Mormon Democrat is not opposed to
gaming in principle. But as a Nevadan with Las Vegas and Reno in his
bailiwick, he has home-state issues in gaming that won't always align with
tribal interests. Here is what Reid had to say on off-reservation gaming in
September of 2004:

"As one of the original authors of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988
... I was proud of the balance we achieved among the different interests in
Indian gaming. Tribes, local, state and the federal governments all have
legitimate interest in this subject, and the concerns of each were
accounted for in that original legislation. [A proposed slate of amendments
supported by tribes in 2004], however, fundamentally upsets that balance
and fails to account for the significant state and local concerns that have
arisen as Indian gaming has grown dramatically in the years since IGRA's
passage ...

"... Over the last decade, the propensity for reservation shopping has
grown in tandem with the profitability of certain Indian gaming
enterprises.

"Tribes seeking land with speculative connection in areas where a casino
might be profitably run have increased dramatically. One of the most
notable current disputes involves an Oklahoma tribe seeking land in Denver
for the operation of a casino. That effort is strongly opposed by state and
local officials. In addition, many tribes oppose these efforts, as
reservation shopping threatens to bring gaming enterprises near
well-established tribes and their reservations.

"Any amendment to IGRA must deal with this new phenomenon to address
significant tribal, state, federal and local concerns."

It remains to be seen where Reid will stand when and if Indian gaming bills
come before the Senate. But he obviously won't be making any last stands
against IGRA amendments that fall short of what tribes sought in the
previous Congress. And that is only one measure of a changed dynamic on
Indian affairs in the Senate.

(Continued in part two)