U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka was a sorry sight standing nearly alone on the Senate floor in the final hours of the 111th Congress, giving a speech blaming Republican obstruction for the failure yet again of his Akaka Bill for native Hawaiian political recognition.
This time, it was nobody’s fault but his own; Akaka simply blew his best chance ever to win Hawaiians sovereign rights similar to those of American Indians and Alaskan natives.
After eight years of being unable to overcome Bush administration opposition and procedural delays by Senate Republicans, Akaka began this Congress with a supportive Democratic president and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, including a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the Senate Democratic caucus.
Even when the loss of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy’s seat prevented Democrats from killing filibusters on their own, it wasn’t a problem because Hawaii’s Republican Gov. Linda Lingle supported the Akaka Bill and brought along enough GOP votes to overcome procedural delays.
Then Akaka snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of getting it done while everything was in his favor, he wasted a year in secret talks with the White House and a narrow group of Hawaiian interests to drastically amend the bill from the version supporters had previously agreed to.
Inexplicably, Akaka kept Lingle in the dark on the changes, and she withdrew her support because of a significant weakening of the state’s rights.
Then-U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie shepherded the bill through the House before he quit to run for governor, but the measure stalled in the Senate when its Republican backers pulled their support following Lingle’s reversal.
Akaka wasted more months before finally making the compromises necessary to get Lingle back on board. By then it was summer, and there was no way his relatively manini bill would get precious floor time in the heat of the election campaign or in the poisonous lame-duck session that followed.
Akaka is again singing his tired "wait till next year" tune, but the Akaka Bill is dead. If he couldn’t get it passed in this favorable Congress, he has no chance next year when Republicans take over the House and gain eight seats in the Senate.
His best course now is to drop the contentious nationhood provisions and try a simpler bill that focuses on just settling the legal question of whether Hawaiians are a racial minority or an indigenous people, which seems to be the key to protecting Hawaiians-only institutions such as Kamehameha Schools, Hawaiian Home Lands and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
That could find broader support, and Hawaiian nationalists would be free to petition on their own for U.S. and international recognition if they ever organize native support behind some vision of sovereignty.