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Washington in brief

House committee puts health care reauthorization on fast track

At the outset of a Natural Resources Committee hearing in the House of Representatives March 14, Chairman Nick Rahall said the lion's share of blame for ongoing failure to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act rests with the Bush administration.

He rehearsed the efforts of previous committee chairmen, Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Don Young, R-Alaska, to get a reauthorization bill through Congress, adding that ''this reauthorization cycle has been far more difficult than all the others combined.''

Rahall, D-W.Va., said dozens upon dozens of changes have been made to the bill since its first introduction, virtually all of them at the request of the administration. Echoing accounts that have been heard from Capitol Hill to K Street (the Washington lobbyist corridor), he said the IHS, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Justice Department all have identified lists of ''problems'' with the bill language. ''The list would be worked on and agreed to, but no sooner were those changes made than another list with several items would show up.

''Staff informed me that on several points, the administration has pushed to retreat from even current law. To go backwards, can you believe it. I can't and I won't. That is a total nonstarter for me.''

Rahall took care to add that the IHS, its staff and its director, Charles Grim, have not been the roadblock to reauthorization. ''Perhaps that is what frustrates me the most: that the problems come from those who never have to look into the eyes of a pregnant mother whose baby is in distress and tell her she needs to drive a hundred miles and maybe - just maybe - someone there can help her.''

By the hearing's end, a bipartisan coalition of committee members had spoken up in strong favor of the reauthorization, among them Reps. Tom Cole, R-Okla.; Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I.; Young; Rick Renzi, R-Ariz.; Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D.; and Frank Pallone, D-N.J.

Pallone, a long-time advocate of Indian health care, will be a key figure in reauthorization efforts during the current 110th Congress. Pallone chairs the health subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has partial jurisdiction over the reauthorization bill. Rahall said Pallone has assured him he'll shepherd the bill through Energy and Commerce.

''We're going to move this legislation,'' Pallone said. ''We're going to make this happen in this session of Congress.''

Rahall added that he has spoken with Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the powerful Speaker of the House, about enacting the reauthorization bill quickly, with the 2008 presidential campaigns looming.

Cobell plaintiffs reject $7 billion settlement offer

Any sum to settle the Cobell v. Kempthorne litigation over the Individual Indian Money trust will have to be approved by Congress, and the Cobell plaintiff class has made it clear a $7 billion settlement won't meet with their approval.

The Bush administration has reduced its ''settlement concepts'' to writing, and among its demands in return for $7 billion is the settlement of all tribal and individual trust claims against the government, as well as an end, over time, to federal trust liability. In addition, only a portion - approximately half - of the $7 billion would go to IIM plaintiffs.

The day after the administration's settlement offer became public knowledge, lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell issued a release stating that whatever the offer purports to be, ''it is not a proposal to settle the Cobell case.''

She termed the offer, or more precisely the letter from Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales extending the offer, ''a license to steal from Indian people,'' presumably by withdrawing federal liability for Indian and tribal trust accounts, as well as for all future trust transactions. ''This is a new low, even for this administration,'' Cobell stated.

She added that the limited purpose of Cobell is to obtain an accounting of IIM trust assets and a restatement of account balances in keeping with the accounting.

''Without ever dealing with the core issue in this 10-year-old case, Kempthorne and Gonzales outline a hodgepodge of provisions, policies and programs, which have nothing to do with the Cobell case. Among other things, the non-Cobell laundry list includes eliminating the government's liability as trustee ... barring all asset mismanagement claims, consolidating fractionated land interests, settling all tribal trust claims and terminating the individual Indian trust. All this would be settled with the $7 billion.''

The Cobell case continues under litigation.