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Washington in brief: Spending and BIA post take hold in Senate

Spending and BIA post take hold in Senate

WASHINGTON - Usually there's some love in any house for a big spending bill, but even $328 billion hasn't made House Report 108-401 wildly popular with lawmakers.

The House of Representatives passed it Dec. 8, but traded many partisan jibes over spending measures in the thrown-together bill that funds government non-military programs, including programs of 11 Cabinet departments. With that, following several glowing announcements of the good news and the remarks from the House floor of Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., quoted in the New York Times and Washington Post to the effect that his own Republican Party had forsaken its anti-spending rhetoric by larding in irresponsible "pork-barrel" spending projects - with that the chamber adjourned until after Jan. 20, 2004, when the full Congress will reconvene for the second year of the 108th Congress.

Late Dec. 9, the Senate joined the House in adjourning.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had tried to schedule a unanimous consent vote for the day of Dec. 9 that would have sent the spending bill to President George W. Bush for final approval. But for the Senate to pass the measure without debate, all Senators would have to consent. With some lawmakers reluctant to admit a Washington interlude to their holiday recess, and others vowing to oppose the bill out of disapproval for the many local and/or special interest spending projects it is laden with, Frist decided Dec. 9 that the Senate would wait until next year to debate the measure.

A continuing resolution will keep such departments as Labor, Education and Veterans Affairs in the money until Jan. 31.

Provisions of the spending bill that will affect Natives are numerous, given the role of the 11 Cabinet departments' programs in Indian country. But if the bill as it now stands becomes law, Alaska Natives may feel it most directly. A late amendment by Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska would consolidate law enforcement systems in Alaska Native villages, mandate a federal study of funding to Alaska Natives, withhold funding from scantly populated Native villages, and set a precedent for recognizing large Alaska Native corporations as tribes in consultation with federal agencies.

Significantly for Indian country at large, Native-specific business items moved into the time freed up in the Senate schedule by Frist's deferral on the big spending bill. Late Dec. 9, among its last agenda items before adjourning, the Senate included Dave Anderson in a slate of appointees confirmed to high office. Bush is expected to finalize their appointment with his signature Dec. 10. Anderson, best known as founder of the "Famous Dave's" franchise of barbeque restaurants, will lead the BIA.

Also late in the business day Dec. 9, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs tried to move a "sense of the Senate" resolution approving alternative account settlement methods, including mediation, in the trust funds management reform litigation known as Cobell. The resolution required unanimous consent, and had it except for one lone holdout, according to a legislative staff member who was willing to speak on background but not for identification. This source said the holdout was Tom Daschle, D-S.D. The Senate Minority Leader felt the resolution would force a form of settlement on the plaintiffs, according to the staff member, though the language of Senate Resolution 248 would simply have committed the Senate to a non-binding preference for settlement of the case rather than continuing litigation.

The same source added that on Dec. 10, following the Senate's adjournment, Daschle staff members insisted the senator supports the resolution, but implied he hadn't been able to express that support among all the other last-minute business of the Senate.

Daschle spokesman Dan Pfeiffer did not immediately respond to a request for comment before deadline.

In any case, Senate Resolution 248 did not receive the unanimous consent of the Senate.