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Washington in brief: trust mediation process advancing

Inouye: trust mediation process is back on track

WASHINGTON - In brief opening remarks before a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs budget hearing Feb. 11, Sen. Daniel Inouye said efforts to commence a mediation process in the trust funds litigation known as Cobell "may be on the verge of some success."

The Hawaii Democrat added that a recent mediation-related proposal has proved "acceptable to all parties."

An attorney in the case declined comment, noting that restrictions are in place.

Inouye and Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., co-chairs of the committee, have urged mediation on the litigants since Spring of 2003. Progress on a mediation process stalled last summer, in part over differences as to who would make a suitable mediator.

Late last October, Campbell pointedly told the class action plaintiff attorneys and the government defense team that Congress has lost patience with the long-running case and its spiraling price tag (largely paid from federal tax coffers). He warned that progress toward settlement of the Individual Indian Money trust accounts must be evident within a year from then or Congress would intervene.

In a development not directly related to mediation, the Interior Department's special trustee for trust funds, Ross Swimmer, has announced the appointment of a nine member Native advisory board on trust functions.

Technical measures make it into law as S. 523

WASHINGTON - The Native American Technical Corrections Act of 2003 passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 11 and went to President George W. Bush for the signature that will make it law.

The bill, called S. 523 for its origination in the Senate, contains provisions directed at tribes nationwide. Among them, according to a breakdown by the House Natural Resources Committee (which passed the bill out of committee to the full House): Section 103 clarifies that Indian Reorganization Act tribes are not required to adopt constitutions pursuant to the IRA and are free to organize their governing bodies in their own way; Section 121 authorizes the Barona Band of Mission Indians to take land into trust for installation of a water pipeline for local firefighting; Section 128 adds the Saginaw Chippewa Tribal College to the list of eligible institutions under the Equity in Educational Land Grant Status Act of 1994; Sections 202 and 203 declare rights, title, and interest in lands to be held in trust for the pueblos of Santa Clara and San Ildefonso; Section 301 provides for the distribution of judgment funds awarded to the Quinault Indian Nation.

The full bill contains a host of such provisions.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, his co-chair on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

National energy bill runs on fumes

WASHINGTON - Legislation that would overhaul the nation's energy system has run afoul of the federal budget, leading its Republican backers to cut back on the bill's financial incentives for energy producers.

Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and the Bush administration's point man on the energy bill, estimated the revised version will cost between $13 billion and $14 billion to implement over 10 years, less than half the original bill's $31 billion estimated cost over the same duration. "I have a leaner energy bill ready to go to the floor," he said. "I have significantly reduced the cost of this bill and I'm confident it will get broad support in the Senate when it is considered."

But the question of whether it will be considered at all became more pressing when sponsors of a transportation bill, itself in trouble over six-year costs estimated at more than $300 billion, resisted efforts to get the energy bill to the Senate floor on its coattails. In addition, the withdrawal of certain concessions to business interests has drawn opposition from other Republicans.

The House of Representatives and the Senate passed similar versions of the bill last year and ironed out the differences in a so-called conference committee. Democrats then mounted a filibuster to prevent the committee version from coming to a final vote in the Senate. Because both chambers have passed the bill and concurred on the conference report, both chambers must agree to changes.

The bill suffered another setback in the House recently when Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., announced that he will not seek re-election and stepped down from the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The 13-termer was a strong advocate of the bill defeated by filibuster late last October.

The Indian title of the bill as last seen would streamline the Interior Department approval process for tribal energy development projects. Details of the Indian title in the new version were not available at press time, but the Indian title has never factored heavily into the bill's estimated implementation cost.