Washington in brief

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An attempt by Sen. David Vitter, a first-term Louisiana Republican, to attach an Indian-specific amendment to national lobbying reform legislation failed for the time being on March 10, when the bill’s Republican-appointed floor manager, Trent Lott, declined to recognize him.

Sens. Lott, R-Miss., and Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate majority leader, have urged their Republican colleagues not to load the lobbying reform bill with unrelated amendments. Immediately following Vitter’s failed amendment offer, Frist called for a vote to close debate (or, in the parliamentary lingo of the Senate, to “invoke cloture”) on the larger lobbying reform bill. When the vote went against him, Frist exercised his privilege as the majority leader and withdrew the bill. He did not reschedule it for the current week on the Senate floor. Capitol Hill watchdog organizations consider it likely to remain on the back burner until April.

Vitter’s amendment sought to treat tribes as corporations for purposes of political donation. It would have forced them to form Political Action Committees as conduits for their political contributions and to register with the Federal Election Commission.

The National Congress of American Indians has resisted both measures as infringements on sovereignty and the federal trust responsibility, arguing that tribal governments are not to be equated with corporations. In addition, the testimony in February of NCAI Treasurer W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam, before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs spelled out the features that set tribes far apart from PACs: “First, PACs are not a good cultural fit for Indian country. The purpose of PACs is to encourage individuals with common interests to pool their resources and act collectively. In many ways, this is what the tribal government already does. Historically and culturally, resources are held collectively with the tribal government, which has a responsibility to provide for the best interests of the community. Tribal members rely on their tribal governments to represent the interests of the tribe in interactions with the federal government. This is one reason why voter turnout has historically been low in Indian country. Tribal governments making donations on behalf of the tribe and its members is consistent with the relationship between a tribal government and its members.”

Key congressional allies of Indian country have taken positions opposing Vitter’s initiative. Chairing a previous meeting of the Senate Rules Committee, Lott permitted Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, to offer a voice amendment striking measures similar to Vitter’s from the lobbying reform bill.

But Vitter’s amendment has strong backing from the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Petroleum Marketers Association and the Society of Independent Gasoline Marketers of America, among others. At least a couple of the groups have locked horns with tribes before, over gasoline sales and the taxation of cigarettes sold online. As reported in The Hill newspaper, a senior executive of the convenience store association linked the failure of earlier campaign-finance efforts to the criminal exploits of ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff in directing tribal donations. The Vitter amendment has failed for the time being, but with backing like that it may come around again.

When the full lobbying reform bill comes around again (and it, too, seems unlikely to fade away for good, though prior congressional enthusiasm for it has been muted over the past month), it may lose a provision calling for the exposure of expenditures on grass-roots lobbying, the “get-out-the-vote” organizing whose funding sources currently go unreported. And it may retain a procedure that would encourage challenges to undebated “earmarks,” the special funding legislators provide for their home-state constituencies. Earmarks are the essence of “pork-barrel politics.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the SCIA, has yet to be heard from publicly as to whether he’ll attach amendments to the lobbying reform package that would bring more openness and accountability to tribal political donations.

In the House, lobbying reform is likely to proceed in separate bills, rather than as one unified package. Momentum for reform has stalled there as in the Senate, though GOP leadership announced March 14 that lobbying reform is still prominent on the agenda. House votes on major provisions are expected before the April 10 congressional spring recess.

<b>Cobell: ‘It has to be fair’</b>

Elouise Cobell, lead plaintiff in the long-fought Cobell v. Norton class action lawsuit over mismanagement of the Individual Indian Money trust, agreed with recent witnesses before Congress that only one major issue remains to be settled: the amount the federal government must pay IIM beneficiaries for its abuse and misuse of their money.

As Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., reminded a joint hearing of House and Senate members March 1, any monetary settlement enacted by Congress must not be interpreted as a draw on taxpayer donations to the federal treasury, but as a restoration to Indians of money rightly due them.

In a March 13 interview, Cobell stood by the $27.5 billion figure put forward by the plaintiff class as a reasonable settlement. “I hope Congress recognizes that’s a discounted figure ... I have to say that it has to be fair to the beneficiaries. We’ve waited too long.” She added that the case is still in litigation.

Identical bills have been introduced in the Senate and the House of Representatives that would settle the litigation. But no monetary amount supportable by Congress has been made public, nor has any firm indication emerged that congressional negotiators have agreed on a figure. On March 2, at an American Indian communications conference hosted by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, general counsel David Mullon of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs said Congress has not arrived at a settlement sum. He also discounted speculation on Capitol Hill that with a constrained federal budget to contend against, lawmakers may save their generosity for trust land consolidation measures and shortchange the IIM beneficiaries. “I don’t see a tie between the two, myself,” Mullon said.

<b>Federal budget fractures GOP unity</b>

The united front of the Republican majority in Congress fell to pieces in the political firestorm surrounding President Bush’s abortive Dubai ports deal, and senior GOP lawmakers couldn’t put it back together again as they moved forward with the federal budgeting process for fiscal year 2007, beginning in October.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R-N.H., proposed a budget that would avoid a second consecutive year of steep spending cuts to many social programs, as advocated by the White House and a core group of congressional Republicans who are determined to reign in federal spending as the nation’s budget deficit deepens and the national debt heads toward almost $9 trillion, half of it incurred by the Bush administration and its Republican majorities in Congress. In abandoning many of the austere spending targets proposed in the president’s budget request, Gregg has effectively acknowledged that GOP senators won’t go along with them.

The result of Senate adjustments to the president’s budget is sure to be a higher federal deficit figure for fiscal year 2007 than projected by the president’s budget proposal. The committee’s budget does boost military “defense” spending.

One domino effect of that decision, if enacted in a final federal budget, is certain to be less spending on non-military domestic discretionary programs, that fraction of the budget which funds most Indian-specific programs. Boosts in entitlement spending, as contemplated in Gregg’s budget, could have a similar impact on domestic discretionary spending. The president’s proposed cap of $872.5 billion on domestic discretionary spending remains in place for now.

Senate leadership hoped to have passed a budget resolution in the Senate by March 17.

The Senate GOP hopes to include revenue from oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in an overall budget. By universal consent in the Senate, any attempt to open ANWR will have to go through the budget reconciliation process.

Democrats are certain to filibuster any straightforward budget resolution bill that includes opening ANWR to oil exploration and development. But Senate rules safeguard the separate budget reconciliation process from the filibuster, a tactic that relies on prolonged debate to prevent a bill from coming to a vote. By assuming ANWR revenue in a budget resolution, Senate Republicans have set the stage for attempting to lift the ban on ANWR oil drilling in a budget reconciliation effort.

The Senate has passed a measure for extra funding of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which President Bush had proposed to fund in FY ’07 at the same level as in FY ’06, despite a nationwide spike in fuel prices. But the Senate’s approval of an extra $1 billion subsidy did not come without spirited debate on the Senate floor between Republicans. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., taunted fellow Republicans by comparing their state’s share of the additional LIHEAP funding with the cost of special-interest funding (earmarks) directed to their constituents last year. His point seemed to be that in a year of fiscal crisis, savings have to come from somewhere and lawmakers must not avoid hard choices if they hope to enact a responsible budget.

In the House of Representatives, a core of deficit-reduction Republicans continues to insist that savings should come from health care programs for the poor and elderly. Republican discord in the House has led the Budget Committee there to delay its budget bill until the end of March. In recent years, the House has rejected Senate efforts to open ANWR.

As Republican unity falters in a congressional session shortened by mid-term elections, the prospect has arisen that Congress may not be able to pass a national budget. In the past, that has led Congress to fund programs at current levels through continuing resolutions.