U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka will move from chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee to lead the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, a loss of influence for the state’s junior senator.
The Hawaii Democrat, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II and went to college on the GI Bill for veterans, has been chairman of Veterans’ Affairs since January 2007. He is expected to be replaced today by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
As the chairman of Veterans’ Affairs and one of the senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Akaka was well placed to be an advocate for Hawaii’s large military population. His posts also provided leverage for U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and its defense subcommittee.
In Washington, D.C., Veterans’ Affairs is considered a more influential committee than Indian Affairs.
Indian Affairs, however, has jurisdiction over American Indian, native Hawaiian, and Alaska native policy. Akaka, who is of Hawaiian and Chinese ancestry, has sought for the past decade to advance a native Hawaiian federal recognition bill in the Senate. Versions of the bill have passed Indian Affairs but have been blocked by Senate Republicans who argue it is race-based legislation.
"I am looking forward to chairing the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and working to help all the indigenous people of our country. I believe the United States can serve as a model for the rest of the world in the treatment of its first people," Akaka said in a statement.
"It has been my incredible honor to chair the Veterans’ Affairs committee during the past four years. I know Sen. Murray to be a passionate advocate for veterans, and I look forward to continuing to work with her as a senior Democrat on that committee."
Akaka’s staff said he is expected to keep his assignments on Armed Services and the Homeland Security and Banking committees. He also could become vice chairman of the Senate Democrats’ steering and outreach committee, a leadership post.
Inouye said the move does not mean diminished support for veterans.
"A few weeks ago, Sen. Akaka and I discussed this matter," he said in a statement. "He had strong feelings, understandably, on the future of native Hawaiian self-determination and the rights of all indigenous people in America. It was a difficult meeting because Sen. Akaka is a World War II veteran and a long-standing champion of veterans’ issues."
Akaka, 86, has said he plans to run for re-election to a fifth six-year term in 2012. Former Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, has said she will consider running for the Senate.
There has been talk privately in political circles that Akaka might be vulnerable to a challenge from Lingle or even a primary opponent. Akaka was able to hold off former U.S. Rep. Ed Case in the 2006 primary after receiving state and national help from the party’s establishment and progressive wings.
"I think we’re always concerned of vulnerability. Obviously, there are many, many good candidates of very many different stripes," said Dante Carpenter, chairman of the Democratic Party of Hawaii. "There’s always competition, and in a way that makes it good, more challenging, and makes us much sharper."
Dylan Nonaka, executive director of the state GOP, believes Akaka is vulnerable. "He’s been ineffective for years," he said. "And I think by a strong challenge, he would be vulnerable — definitely — in 2012."