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Akaka to give bill another go

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U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who has said he will retire after his term expires next year, plans to reintroduce today a proposal that would grant federal recognition to native Hawaiians.

Akaka will introduce the measure on the Senate floor, spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said.

U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono has said she plans to introduce the measure in the House this week.

Details of the bill were to be released upon its introduction. The proposal has been before Congress since 1999 through three administrations.

The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, known as the Akaka Bill in honor of its primary sponsor, would create a process for Hawaiians to form their own governing entity and negotiate with federal and state governments on land use and cultural issues. The federal recognition would be similar to that of American Indians and Alaska natives.

Many observers felt the bill was poised to pass the last two years with a Democratic-controlled Congress including a 60-vote filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and support from President Barack Obama, but the bill hit a snag.

An amended version of the bill emerged in late 2009 that prompted then-Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican who had been a strong backer of the proposal, to withdraw her support. Lingle argued the changes negotiated privately among the Hawaii delegation, the Justice Department and state Attorney General Mark Bennett gave the new governing entity sovereign immunity and made the state vulnerable to lawsuits.

In one of his last acts before resigning to run for governor, then-U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie shepherded the bill through a 245-164 House vote, but the bill stalled in the Senate as key Republicans withdrew support, following Lingle’s lead. Then the January special election of Republican Sen. Scott Brown to fill the seat of Sen. Edward Kennedy ended the Democrats’ 60-member majority.

After the November elections, in which Republicans took control of the House, Akaka introduced the compromise measure during the "lame duck" session of Congress. Van Dyke said the introduction was done to "get it on the record" and to show that Akaka wanted to honor the agreement with Lingle.

The Akaka Bill has broad support within Hawaii’s political establishment, including from the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, along with the backing of many Hawaiian civic groups. Many Republicans oppose the bill as unconstitutional race-based discrimination because it would treat Hawaiians differently from other state residents.

Some Hawaiian sovereignty activists are against the bill because they believe it would interfere with the potential restoration of an independent kingdom.

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