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Akaka Bill Passes Senate Indian Affairs Committee, But is Likely DOA on Senate Floor

US Senator Daniel Akaka

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, with the help of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, has attempted for more than a decade to get legislation passed that would have the federal government "recognize" native Hawaiians, so that race-based government programs are protected from legal challenges.

The proposed legislation, which would set up a framework for a separate native Hawaiian nation within the United States, has been extremely controversial in the islands and in Congress. Native Hawaiians on both sides have been fighting over the language and intent.

One proposal included designating native Hawaiians as a new Indian tribe (although they were never in tribes).

The legislation passed the U.S. House three times, even with strong opposition by conservatives both in and out of the U.S. House. However, the legislation has never passed the U.S. Senate.

This despite the power that Inouye, D-HI, has as appropriations chair and as President pro tempore of the U.S. Senate.

Akaka, now 88, is retiring at the end of year from the U.S. Senate, and in one final push, he is asking fellow Senators to back his Native Hawaiian Recognition bill otherwise known as the Akaka Bill.

Today, in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which Akaka chairs, the Akaka Bill (S. 675 ) was voted to the Senate floor via voice vote.

Akaka also included an amendment seen here 

"My amendment, guided by extensive consultation and witness testimony, streamlines my bill, builds on recent efforts by the State of Hawaii, and incorporates longstanding principles of federal Indian law," Akaka said. "The Native Hawaiian people are the only federally-recognized Native peoples without a government-to-government relationship, and no clear path to securing one without legislation.  This bill will create parity in federal policy so that Native Hawaiians will be treated the same as all other recognized indigenous peoples - no more no less."
Akaka said Congress has created and continues to fund programs to address the Native Hawaiian needs in the areas of health, education, welfare and housing, but has failed to uphold the final and most important piece of the trust relationship with Native Hawaiians, a guaranteed right to self-governance. "By approving this amendment today, the members of this Committee took a stand for justice and a step towards equity," Akaka said.
Inouye said: "Federal recognition for Native Hawaiians is long overdue and I will continue the fight started by my longtime partner and friend, Senator Akaka. Whether it be during this Congress or the next, I will not rest until the sovereign rights of Native Hawaiians are recognized and Senator Akaka's legacy is fulfilled."

But not everyone was supportive of the legislation.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, indicated his opposition, as did Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, via proxy.

Meanwhile Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, voiced her support.  No other Republicans were present.

Barrasso said on the record this bill has inspired strong opposition from other Senators who "feel strongly" it bypasses the Department of Interior process inappropriately.

Steven Duffield, former policy director to Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who has watched the Akaka legislation over the years, and attended the hearing today, said: "This bill is dead on arrival on the Senate floor.  Committee Vice Chair John Barrasso (R-WY) went out of his way to thank Sen. Akaka for his service and leadership, but then made clear that he opposes the bill and many others do, too. The fact that Sen. McCain, who once chaired this committee, reiterated his opposition should remind everyone how deep the concerns about this bill are."

Leon Siu, a native Hawaiian activist and popular Hawaiian entertainer, has opposed the Akaka Bill legislation in Congress and has even traveled to Washington DC to meet with House and Senate members about his concerns.

Siu said in an earlier letter to Hawaii Reporter that Akaka made a key tactical error in December 2009 when he amended the bill to create a "tribe" and take away state oversight, because that set off a chain of events that led to the bill's failure.

That included leading then Republican Gov. Linda Lingle's withdraw state’s support for the measure. In addition, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who was in Congress at the time, failed to embrace the amendments Akaka proposed, Siu said, leaving two different versions of the bill.

Then Akaka changed his bill back to the pre-December 2009 version, Siu said, getting the governor back on board with the Senate bill, but not the still unacceptable Abercrombie version in the House.

In addition to native Hawaiian sovereignty activists who don't want federal authority over them, conservative organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, and several Republican Congress members, have opposed the bill.

Supporting the legislation are native Hawaiian organizations such as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Department of Hawaiian Homelands, both state agencies that provide services and housing to native Hawaiians.

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