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Akaka Bill lives again with new push on Hill

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Against seemingly long odds in both chambers of Congress, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka renewed his long-standing effort to secure federal recognition for native Hawaiians.

Akaka and Democratic colleague U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye introduced yesterday the latest version of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, better known as the Akaka Bill. Democratic U.S. Reps. Mazie Hirono and Colleen Hanabusa introduced the same bill in the House.

“The bill has been around for over a decade and has never had an up or down vote in the Senate,” said Jesse Broder Van Dyke, a spokesman for Akaka. “Sen. Akaka would like to see that happen while he is in the Senate.”

Akaka has announced plans to retire when his term ends next year.

At least one political analyst expects the measure to be dead on arrival in the partisan atmosphere of the nation’s capital.

“I don’t think there’s any chance at all it would get passed,” said Neal Milner, a University of Hawaii political scientist. “The Republicans have had what they consider to be principled objections to the idea for the past, at least, five or six years, and that’s really what’s always kept it from going forward more than anything else.”

A change in the bill’s favor is Akaka’s new leadership post as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which passed the bill in December 2009.

“Sen. Akaka now chairs the committee of jurisdiction for this legislation, which adds to his ability to move the bill forward,” Broder Van Dyke said. “As the U.S. Department of Justice has advised, this version of the bill is stronger because it more closely parallels existing United States policy towards its indigenous people.”

Language in the current version of the bill was proposed by the White House and negotiated between the U.S. Justice Department and Hawaii’s congressional delegation.

“By introducing the bill, which passed Indian Affairs in 2009 and was the subject of extensive study by the committee, the Department of Justice, and others, Chairman Akaka is able to move forward promptly now,” Broder Van Dyke said.

The House version of the bill would go to the Natural Resources Committee, previously led by former U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, who guided the bill through a 245-164 party-line floor vote, getting the bill through the House in one of his final acts last year before resigning to run for governor.

Now under Republican control after the 2010 midterm elections, the committee is led by U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., who has opposed the bill as a measure to create a separate, race-based government of native Hawaiians.

Abercrombie pledged to do what he could as governor to help win passage of the legislation, which was first introduced in 1999.

“Speaker (John) Boehner and I are old friends,” Abercrombie said. “We’ve disagreed about the bill, but he was never opposed to letting us have a vote on it and see where it went.

“I’ll make the same appeal again — that this is not a Republican versus Democrat issue. This is an issue having specifically to do with Hawaii that does not have adverse consequences for anyone else in the country, but could have a great deal of advantage to us in terms of resolving long-standing issues.”

The bill 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.

The bill would establish an office within the Department of the Interior to serve as a liaison between native Hawaiians and the federal government, Akaka said.

If native Hawaiians were recognized, the negotiation process would be established. The bill does not include provisions to allow for gambling, nor does it set forth a process by which Hawaii may secede from the United States, Akaka said. It also does not allow for private land to be taken or for the creation of a reservation in Hawaii, he added.

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