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Thune and Dorgan heal rift over Indian health and safety legislation

WASHINGTON – Bipartisanship is back when it comes to congressional desires to fund legislation authorized last summer by Congress focused on Indian health and safety.

The specific legislation, called the Emergency Fund for Indian Health and Safety, recently caused ruffled feathers between Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D, and John Thune, R-S.D.

Thune tried to get an amendment attached to the recent omnibus bill that would have appropriated $400 million to the fund. He has been pushing to get real money attached to the law, and told Indian Country Today in the past that he would press hard to do so through various legislative avenues.

Dorgan, a staunch advocate of Indian issues who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said on the Senate floor that he was caught off guard by Thune’s attempt. Congressional staffers noted that Democratic leadership in Congress had said it wouldn’t accept any amendments to the omnibus.

After Dorgan’s remarks, Thune told ICT he had given Dorgan and other Democrats a heads up on the amendment – and Dorgan wasn’t being forthcoming. In fact, Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., crossed party lines to vote for it.

Whatever issues Dorgan and Thune had with each other just a few short days ago, they appear to have reconciled – at least in terms of this particular Indian country funding.

Both senators joined a bipartisan group of their colleagues March 23 in sending a letter to Sens. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee.

It urged them to include funding for the Emergency Fund for Indian Health and Safety in the fiscal year 2010 budget resolution.

“Based on the U.S. Constitution, treaties with Indian tribes and federal statutes, the United States has assumed a trust responsibility for the provision of public safety and health care to Indian people,” reads the letter.

“The Native American population, however, is facing a public safety and health crisis due, in large part, to a lack of federal funding. Recognizing this fact, in July 2008, Congress authorized (1) $750 million for law enforcement in Indian Country, (2) $250 million for Indian health care, including contract health services, Indian health facilities, and domestic and community sanitation facilities, and (3) $1 billion for water supply projects that are part of Indian water settlements approved by Congress. … These amounts are in addition to any amounts made available under any other provision of law.”

Thune and Dorgan were joined by 17 Senate colleagues in sending the letter. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the new vice-chair of SCIA, did not add his signature.