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'What a difference a year makes'

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What a difference a year makes" is a saying we have all probably used in
reference to our lives at one time or another, and it is a phrase I find
myself using about American Indians and the attitudes of some politicians
in Washington today.

Last winter, I remember standing in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol at the
dedication ceremony of a new statue depicting Sarah Winnemucca, a member of
the Northern Paiute tribe who was immortalized in the Capitol for the work
she did on behalf of American Indians more than 125 years ago. At that
ceremony, leaders from both sides of the aisle stood side by side, paying
tribute to this great woman and declaring that we all need to rededicate
ourselves to the causes of equality and fairness that Sarah championed for
her people.

This winter, American Indians are again a hot topic under the Capitol dome.
Only this year, we do not hear bipartisan pledges and commitments to work
together. Instead, we see a disgusting attempt by some Republicans to drag
Indians into a political scandal in which they are nothing but victims.

By this time, the story of disgraced Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is
well-known among the American Indian community. As a lobbyist for numerous
tribes, Abramoff bilked Natives for millions of dollars in bloated lobbying
fees.

However, defrauding tribes is not his only crime. Abramoff also is
connected to attempts at bribery, skirting campaign finance rules and
paying off representatives with golf trips to Scotland. His actions make
him a poster boy for corruption in Republican-run Washington, and they have
sent leaders of his party running for cover.

In their attempt to protect themselves, some Republican leaders have tried
to pin wrongdoing on the tribes that hired Abramoff. Republicans have
suggested that by participating in our political process, these tribes are
guilty and that any political contributions from them are tainted.

Nothing could be further from the truth. These tribes are Abramoff's
victims, and it is disingenuous to suggest anything less. Like every group
of Americans, tribes have a right to participate in our political process.
These tribes have done nothing but exercise their democratic rights; and
instead of persecuting them, everyone in Washington should be coming to
their defense.

Unfortunately, exploitation of American Indians by Republicans does not end
there. In addition to trying to drag tribes into their scandal, Republicans
have begun calling into question every deed Democrats have ever done on
behalf of Native people. It is politics at its worst. Democrats are proud
of the work we have done for American Indians, and we will never back down.

I believe that, as leaders in Washington, we should do all we can to
improve American Indian communities across this country. In particular, I'm
proud of the work I've done to increase access to health care for Natives
in Nevada and to increase economic development for the Fallon
Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in particular. Similarly, it was with great
satisfaction that just this year, I worked to protect the livelihood of the
Walker River Paiute Tribe by securing funding to save Walker Lake.

When it comes to gaming, I've had a simple motto: Nevada comes first.
Gaming is Nevada's No.1 industry, and I have always -- and will always --
do everything in my power to protect it. That is why I have worked so hard
to ensure compliance with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. This has not
always made me a friend of the American Indian gaming industry, but my
record is consistent and clear. I am for greater regulation and against
anything that threatens the economy of my state.

My work to protect Nevada gaming and to promote the interests of Native
people has nothing to do with political contributions, and everything to do
with what is right. The Paiute, Shoshone, Washoe and all of Nevada's Native
peoples have made unique contributions to our state, and as their Senator,
I will continue to do what is best for them.

In 2006, that means fighting to restore honest leadership in Washington,
D.C. It is a sign of just how corrupt Washington has become that leaders
are trying to drag American Indians into a scandal, instead of working
together to help them get ahead.

I believe that together, America can do better, and it starts with leaders
who put people -- not their own self-interests -- first.

Democrats believe it is time lawmakers stopped hiding behind Natives and
started working for them and the rest of the American people. In the days
ahead, my Democratic lawmakers and I will be introducing measures that will
make sure lawmakers always put progress before politics. These new
regulations will reform a system that gave rise to lobbyists like Jack
Abramoff, and they will require tough new rules of members of Congress.

Honest leadership is not a partisan goal. It is the only way we can make
progress for all Americans. When leaders are free from scandal and undue
influence, there is no limit to how far America can go.

Born in the small mining town of Searchlight, Nev., Senate Democratic
Leader Harry Reid was first elected to the U.S. Senate from the state of
Nevada in 1986 and became Democratic Leader last year.