Senate Indian Affairs Committee meets under Democratic rule
UPDATE
Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) was installed as chairman of the committee on Thursday. He said he will work closely with Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), the new vice chairman, on legislation to benefit Indian Country.

"I believe there is a bona fide crisis in Indian health care, education and housing, and this committee has an opportunity to make a real difference on those issues during this Congress," Dorgan said. "I look forward to charting a course that will help move our American Indian communities forward."

The committee meets again on Thursday, January 25, to consider changes to its rules and to adopt a budget.

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The Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds its first meeting today, ushering in a new era of Democratic control and, tribal leaders hope, a flood of pro-Indian legislation.

Historically, the panel has worked in a nonpartisan manner. Bills that came out of the committee were developed by members of both parties to ensure agreement and unity on the Senate floor.

And even though the chairman was always of the majority party and the vice chairman was of the minority, they typically shared power on the committee. They alternately presided over hearings, giving both sides an equal shot at advancing the agenda.

But the atmosphere shifted in recent years, a reflection of the extremely close balance of power in the Senate and of the highly sensitive issues taken on by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona). During his past two years as chairman, Republicans and Democrats openly clashed on off-reservation gaming, federal recognition and other hot-button measures.

The divisions meant few critical bills made out of the committee. Most of the 109th Congress, instead, was spent on the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal and doomed efforts to amend the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

Today's selection of Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) as chairman and Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) as vice chairman isn't likely to end future disagreements or controversial topics. Democrats only have a one-vote advantage in the committee and a two-vote advantage in the chamber.

But Dorgan and Democrats in the Senate and the House have already signaled their intent to focus on health care, housing, education and other issues deemed critical by tribes. "There's a feeling in Indian Country that Indian education and Indian health have been neglected," Mark Van Norman, the executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, recently said.

Already, the Democratic-controlled House passed a bill to open up some of the billions of dollars in homeland security funding to tribes. That issue never made it far under Republican rule despite repeated tribal lobbying.

In the Senate, Republican members of the Indian Affairs Committee joined Democrats in defeating a proposal to limit tribal political contributions. Tribes saw the measure as an attack on their rights in the wake of the Abramoff scandal.

Although the committee is just getting started today, some bills are already on the agenda. They include Native Hawaiian recognition and compensation for two South Dakota tribes.

The committee is also expected to take up the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The bill came close to Senate passage last year but was held up by Republicans at the request of the Bush administration.

Elsewhere in Congress, bills have been introduced to provide funding for tribes to fight methamphetamine, extend an Indian employment tax credit, apologize for the federal government's treatment of Native peoples, recognize the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, recognize the Rappahannock Tribe of Virginia, settle a claim by the Pottawatomi Nation in Canada and acquire land in trust for the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians of California.

Under a resolution adopted by the Senate on January 12, the Democratic members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee are:
Byron Dorgan of North Dakota
Daniel Inouye of Hawaii
Kent Conrad of North Dakota
Daniel Akaka of Hawaii
Tim Johnson of South Dakota
Maria Cantwell of Washington
Claire McCaskill of Missouri
Jon Tester of Montana

The Republican members are:
Craig Thomas of Wyoming
John McCain of Arizona
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska
Tom Coburn of Oklahoma
Pete Domenici of New Mexico
Gordon Smith of Oregon
Richard Burr of North Carolina

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee - http://indian.senate.gov

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