U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka has been advised he must act quickly on a native Hawaiian federal recognition bill or lose the chance to bring it to a vote before the November elections change the political composition of the Senate.
Akaka, the bill’s main sponsor, also has been told privately by allies that he should consider amendments to win back the support of Gov. Linda Lingle and help attract moderate Senate Republicans. But sources familiar with the negotiations question whether the Republican governor could deliver any additional GOP votes.
The bill, pending in Congress for the past decade, would grant native Hawaiians sovereign authority similar to American Indians and Alaska natives and establish a process for Hawaiians to form their own government. Akaka needs 60 votes in the Senate to break procedural roadblocks from conservative Senate Republicans who oppose the bill as race-based discrimination.
Lingle, who has supported previous versions of the bill, opposes the current version because it would give Hawaiians sovereign authority prior to, instead of after, negotiations with the federal and state governments on land use and cultural issues. Akaka agreed to the current version after consultation with the Obama administration, which wants to treat Hawaiians similarly to American Indians and Alaska natives from the start.
U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd’s death and an unexpectedly competitive Senate primary in Alaska have also created new challenges for Akaka.
Akaka, D-Hawaii, had been counting on all Democrats and two independents who typically vote with Democrats to get to 59 votes. He lost a vote when Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, died on Monday. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, will appoint Byrd’s replacement but has said he will likely not make a decision until at least next week.
Akaka is also relying on a Republican, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who has carried on the traditional alliance between Hawaii and Alaska on home-state issues. But Murkowski is facing an Aug. 24 primary against Joe Miller, a conservative Fairbanks lawyer who has been endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express.
While native Hawaiian recognition has not come up in the primary, Miller has criticized Murkowski as a moderate who too often votes with Democrats.
"I am confident that the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act will pass and be signed into law," Akaka said in a statement yesterday. "The Senate has many bills pending, but I am working to bring the bill to the floor when time is available. I look forward to the opportunity to have an up-or-down vote on the bill. It is time for the United States to finally extend federal recognition to native Hawaiians similar to the more than 500 other indigenous groups already recognized by the United States."
Akaka would like commitments from more than 60 senators as insurance against any absences on the Senate floor. Possible allies include two moderate Republicans—U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine—and other Republicans who might agree to help break procedural roadblocks even though they might vote against the bill.
But Akaka might have difficulty as long as Lingle remains opposed. The senator also has to contend with the Senate’s calendar. The Senate will be in recess for much of August and has a full plate of spending bills and other matters in September. The Senate is likely to break in October as many senators return home to campaign in the November elections. Majority Democrats could lose seats in the Senate after the elections, which would make it even harder for Akaka to advance the bill.
Jennifer Goto Sabas, the chief of staff in Honolulu to U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said Akaka’s staff has been told that waiting until September could be too late. The best chance, she said, is to try to bring the bill to the Senate floor this month.
Two attorneys close to Inouye, Akaka and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs have discussed potential amendments with state Attorney General Mark Bennett in the hopes Lingle will again support the bill. The draft language has been provided to Akaka’s staff.
"What we expressed was that if the language that we discussed were put in the bill, then we would continue to support native Hawaiian sovereignty and the bill," Bennett said.
But sources familiar with the discussions said Lingle’s previous support was not enough to overcome Senate Republican and Bush administration opposition. If the Senate adopts an amended version, the bill would also have to be reconciled with the version that passed the House in February.
Several conservative Senate Republicans who oppose the bill wrote a June 14 letter to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., warning that it "poses an exceptionally dangerous threat to our nation’s core values." The letter also noted Lingle’s opposition.
"Presumptive color-blindness and race-neutrality is now at the core of our legal system and cultural environment, and represents one of the most important American achievements of the 20th century," the Republicans wrote. "It would be remarkable if Congress cheapened this achievement by enacting explicitly race-based legislation that would undoubtedly pit native Hawaiians against other Hawaiian residents."