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Vitter amendment on campaign financing again confronts tribes

The first emergency for tribes of the 110th Congress rang in the afternoon of Jan. 9, when it became apparent Sen. David Vitter, R-La., would renew an amendment to define tribal governments as corporations under the Federal Election Campaign Act.

The amendment came up as Congress debated an ethics and lobbying reform package, S. 1 in the Senate, which is a priority of the new Democratic majority. Vitter's amendment - ''To modify the application of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 to Indian tribes'' - was offered as amendment 5 to amendment 3 of Senate Bill 1. As of Jan. 11, the text of the proposed amendment, on page S309 of the Senate record, was accessible through the Internet at www3.capwiz.com/c-span/webreturn/?url=http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:s.1:

It may be around for a while, according to a Capitol Hill senior staff member who was willing to speak on background but not for attribution. Just after the close of business hours on Jan. 10, the Senate voted to table Vitter's amendment. But the show of support for it - 40 votes in favor - surprised the Capitol Hill staffer, who said it suggested tribes have work to do in terms of educating members of the new Congress as to tribal standing under the Constitution. It also suggested that Vitter will try to attach it again to another bill.

Vitter tried to offer the amendment last year, but tribes successfully opposed it on the grounds that by limiting tribal campaign contributions, the amendment would curb Indian participation in the political process. Tribes again rallied against the amendment Jan. 9 and 10, according to Virginia Davis, associate counsel for the National Congress of American Indians.

Many tribes from around the country contacted their congressional members within about 24 hours of word that Vitter was circulating his amendment again, Davis said. NCAI sent a letter to all senators deploring the ''dangerous precedent'' of equating tribal governments with corporations. Davis added that while increased transparency of the campaign finance system is not objectionable to tribes, it should be handled separately from ethics and lobbying reform.

NCAI was confident throughout that enough members of Congress consider the bill unnecessary and inappropriate to ethics and lobbying reform, she said.

''This is nothing new from Senator Vitter.''

Vitter's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.