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Washington in brief

MCCAIN PLEDGES TO KEEP COMMITTEE NON-PARTISAN

Conducting the first public meeting of his return engagement as Senate
Committee on Indian Affairs chairman, Sen. John McCain paid tribute to
retired chairman Ben Nighthorse Campbell, saluted the "unwavering
commitment" to Native issues of Hawaii Democratic committee member Daniel
Inouye, and said he will work to keep committee proceedings non-partisan.
He added that the committee has seen significant changes in its membership,
but none at all in its "solemn commitment" to Indian people.

The Arizona Republican also set forth an agenda that coincided with that of
the Resources Committee in the House of Representatives, a signal the two
committees of jurisdiction on most Indian issues are united on priorities
going into the current 109th Congress. Above all, McCain emphasized the
Indian Health Care Improvement Act. To the sharp disappointment of Indians,
their congressional allies and professional staffers, the act was an
11th-hour casualty in the last Congress, leaving Indian health care
unauthorized. "We must get this important legislation passed in this
session," McCain said.

Other issues before the committee will be the Cobell litigation over
federal mismanagement of Indian trust funds, tribal recognition and the
Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, the Indian title of national energy
legislation, transportation, education and welfare, homeland security and
tribes - and the bill for Native Hawaiian self-governance. With remarks
early in January, McCain raised fears that as chairman he would table the
bill. He has clarified his position since and now says the bill will get a
fair hearing before the committee. If voted for by a majority on the
committee, he added, it will be debated on the Senate floor. He expressed
continuing concerns with the bill as well.

Not forgotten was the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, his
communications associate Michael Scanlon and their well-paid dealings with
tribes. Significantly perhaps, given the twosome's approach to
congressional members and appearances with members of the White House
staff, McCain said the committee's investigation is "far from over." He
referred to Abramoff and Scanlon as "scoundrels."

Otherwise the Jan. 26 meeting was uneventful, involving rules changes. The
presence of a majority of committee members is now a quorum, and committee
subpoenas can be issued upon agreement of the chairman and the
vice-chairman, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

McCain last chaired the committee a decade ago. He has been a committee
member since that time, however.

ANWR, AKAKA BILLS ARE BACK IN PLAY

As anticipated, Rep. Don Young has reintroduced a bill to authorize oil
drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a measure successfully
resisted by environmentalists and their congressional allies in each of the
last two Congresses.

The current 109th Congress, by contrast, shows a larger Republican majority
in both chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The GOP
hopes this will be the session to enact a leading priority of President
Bush. Young, an Alaska Republican, is a member of the House Resources
Committee.

His bill's mid-January reintroduction was the second of four major
statements of Republican resolve on ANWR and Alaska oil. First, the
Resources Committee announced that ANWR would be a priority, and Young
followed by introducing a bill identical to last year's (though it differs
in key respects from a Senate version that also elapsed last year). Then on
Jan. 19, Bush's nominee as Energy Secretary, Samuel Bodman, said at his
confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources
Committee that he will support ANWR drilling, as well as construction of a
natural gas pipeline from Alaska's North Slope, west of ANWR. On Jan. 20,
the Bureau of Land Management's Alaska regional director announced lease
sales for winter drilling and coal mining in North Slope caribou and wild
goose habitat.

Also as anticipated, the Hawaii congressional delegation in both chambers
reintroduced the Akaka Bill, named after lead sponsor Sen. Daniel Akaka,
D-Hawaii. The ultimate purpose of the bill is to provide federal
recognition for Native Hawaiians as a political entity, though its
immediate provisions would only authorize Native Hawaiians to engage in a
process that would lead to federal recognition. Racial preferences for
Native Hawaiians are under siege in several court cases. The Hawaii
congressional delegation maintains the bill will establish parity in
federal policies toward Native Hawaiians, Alaska Natives and American
Indians.

Last year, Republican leadership in the Senate assured Akaka and fellow
Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye that the bill would be debated on the Senate
floor, assuming it makes it out of committee as anticipated. The bill has
passed in the House in previous years, heavily assisted by Reps. Neil
Abercrombie and Ed Case, both D-Hawaii.

WARTIME DEFICIT DEEPENS

The politically neutral Congressional Budget Office estimates a record $427
billion federal deficit in fiscal year 2005, eclipsing the record $412
billion figure in 2004.

The deficit figure comes despite a double-digit increase in taxes to the
federal treasury, according to The Washington Post. The administration of
Pres. Bush had counted on such receipts - sign of a growing economy - to
curb the deficit. The deficit is the amount expenditures exceed revenues in
a fiscal year.

The problem is not a shortage of revenues but a surfeit of spending. Bush
has run three of the largest consecutive deficits in U.S. history. By the
time two requests for a total $105 billion for war this year are factored
in, the war in Afghanistan and the occupation of Iraq will have cost more
than $270 billion over fewer than three years.

A CBO forecast of future federal debt for the next decade, gloomy enough on
the face of it, assumed no U.S. spending in Iraq or Afghanistan over that
period. The federal debt is cumulative U.S. borrowing to cover deficits,
minus amounts paid back.

In general, debt and deficit figures directly affect the revenues available
for spending on the kind of domestic discretionary programs tribes rely on.