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Ailing Akaka Bill inexcusable


When Hawaii-born Barack Obama was sworn in as president, it seemed certain that Congress would quickly approve, as it should have, a bill allowing negotiations to go forward toward a native Hawaiian government. But now, time is running out because of delays caused by changes to the bill made in the U.S. House — and Hawaii’s delegation needs to take action quickly or face the costs of failure.

Saving the bill may be impossible. Any attempt to resurrect it in the next two years probably would be futile because of a polarized Congress. Republican leaders have opposed it, arguing that the proposal would be unconstitutionally race-based. Thanks to the midterm elections, the GOP will rule the House come January and is poised to defeat Democratic attempts in the Senate to reach a necessary 60-vote super-majority on any given issue.

Gov. Linda Lingle supported Hawaiian sovereignty but opposed controversial changes that were included in a bill approved by the House in February. U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka had not informed Lingle about the changes, patterned after Native American laws and granting sovereignty before instead of after negotiations with the state and federal governments on land use and cultural issues.

Not until July did Akaka, for whom the bill is named, and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye agree to remove the House-approved changes from the Senate’s version of the bill. Lingle then promptly sent letters to all senators renewing her support of the Senate bill. If the Senate were to approve the form of the bill supported by Lingle, that version would need to be sent back to the House for enactment.

Consumed with issues of extending unemployment insurance, small business loans, confirmation of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court and reelection campaigns, the Senate since then has taken no action on the Akaka Bill.

Both houses of Congress in their lame-duck sessions are embroiled in issues such as extending tax cuts from the George W. Bush administration, repeal of the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, extending unemployment insurance, child nutrition, ratification of an arms control treaty and a backlog of spending bills.

Delays causing Hawaiian sovereignty to move to the back of the line at this late date are excuses, not reasons, after a full decade of debate. Akaka should realize that they will haunt him in two years, when he says he will run for reelection to a six-year term at age 88, possibly against Lingle, who says she is considering such a candidacy.

Inouye said "the odds are bad" that the bill will be enacted this year. "I’m being very candid and upfront because I don’t want people to have their hopes justifiably raised, because at this stage I would say it’s not one of the so-called priority measures."

Hawaii’s powerful senior senator would certainly know, despite the optimism of advocates like Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee Rowena Akana, who "wouldn’t rule out the chance that it could be passed next year."

In reality, proponents of Hawaiian sovereignty are watching the Akaka Bill’s best chances of passage vanishing — and must resign themselves to targeting movement after the 2012 election, if ever.

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