Congressional passage of the Hawaiian sovereignty bill has become possible with yesterday’s dropping of controversial alterations of the legislation that were made in December. Those changes had cost the support of Gov. Linda Lingle and possibly crucial bipartisan support of any kind. Sen. Daniel Akaka and the rest of Hawaii’s congressional delegation have prudently agreed to eliminate the objectionable changes, and Lingle is back on board favoring enactment.
"Now is the time to act," Sen. Daniel Inouye wrote in a Fourth of July column in Sunday’s Star-Advertiser, "even if it may require compromise to, at long last, adopt a measure that begins the process of self-determination" of native Hawaiians.
The altered bill, approved by the House in February, would have recognized the Hawaiian governing council as "an Indian tribe." Much of what that entailed was "unsuited for the state of Hawaii" and "will certainly engender new disputes over the status of much of the land in Hawaii," objected Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett.
For example, Indian laws rather than state or federal statutes typically govern Indian reservations. Hawaii has no similar land bases. Lingle, expressing opposition to the altered bill to all Senate Republicans, had asserted that the bill would set the native Hawaiian governing entity and the state "on a jurisdictional collision course" that would result in costly litigation and "remedial legislation" by Congress.
Inouye expressed concern about the changes when he became aware of them. He said they were "totally unexpected" and he was "very surprised" that the revisions were not shared with the Lingle administration. Akaka rejected holding hearings in Hawaii on the changes, as we urged.
Two attorneys close to Inouye, Akaka and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs discussed possible amendments recently with Bennett aimed at restoring Lingle’s support. Bennett told the Star-Advertiser’s Derrick DePledge that the administration would support the bill "if the language that we discussed were put in the bill."
The Senate fell four votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster in 2006, but that was when Republicans were in control. Democratic senators now number 58, but Lingle’s opposition could have resulted in defeat. Furthermore, Republicans are expected to regain seats in the November election.
Time is running out. The Senate will be in recess much of August and will be busy with spending bills in September. Senators will be consumed with campaigns after that. Clearly, the best opportunity to take a vote is this month, as Akaka has been advised, leaving time for the House to approve the improved bill.
For the long-delayed and so-close Akaka Bill, survival demanded this compromise. Given the shifting political winds, it’s do-or-die time.