As furor builds over the Bush administration's
firing of several U.S. Attorneys, another political caper
hangs over the Department of Justice.
Just who was responsible for the "white paper" that derailed
the Indian Health Care Improvement Act?
First, there's the official answer.
"I was told that no one in the Department of Justice released it,"
Frederick Breckner III, a deputy assistant general,
said last week.
Then, there's the unofficial one.
"The evidence is that the Department of Justice put out a white paper to kill
this bill," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of
the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
Neither explanation comes as a surprise in Washington, given the
department's mishandling of the federal prosecutor flap.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledged on Tuesday
that "mistakes were made" on that matter, though
he rejected calls to resign.
But for Indian Country, no answer can ever be satisfying.
Months later, tribal leaders are still smarting over the defeat of
legislation they have been working since 1999
"We believe that it was the reason that our momentum towards
passage by the Senate for unanimous consent was derailed,"
said Rachel Joseph, the co-chair of the national
steering committee to reauthorize the IHCIA, during an appearance on Native America
Getting to the bottom of the controversy has been tough.
The white paper wasn't signed and didn't come on official
Yet somehow it landed in the hands of the Senate Republican Steering
Committee on September 29, 2006, the last day before the Senate
went into recess.
The timing left no doubt, at least in the minds of Indian Country,
as to the Bush administration's motives.
Yet tribal leaders, as well as Dorgan, were puzzled
when Breckner attempted to explain how it all happened.
In his testimony last week, he said the department intended
for the white paper to be released after the September recess.
Breckner's response "was a little confusing to some of us because if they
were to release it after the session, the bill could have
been enacted by then, and I'm not sure what the purpose
of that timing would have been," Joseph said yesterday.
Dorgan further noted that, at the time, the Senate hadn't committed
to returning to work after the November elections.
"It was not clear in September that that we were going to be
back for a lame-duck session," he said.
Dorgan also took issue with the reason for the
white paper's existence.
Reading straight from a script, Breckner
claimed the staff of the Senate Indian Affairs
Committee asked DOJ to come up with a written
document that outlined concerns with the bill.
"I can simply say to you that neither Sen. [John] McCain's staff nor
my staff ... were privy to this and I don't believe either of
those staffs asked you to prepare this," said Dorgan. McCain
was chairman of the committee during the 109th Congress.
"I don't believe for a moment that 'no one' released it," Dorgan
continued, using Breckner's own words.
"It shows up at one [political] caucus accidentally?
I don't think so."
Though it appears no one at DOJ will accept responsibility for
the white paper, tribes hope the 110th Congress can finally reauthorize
the IHCIA. A House version was introduced earlier this month,
and the House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing
today on the bill.
"We're hoping it will be passed by September," Joseph said yesterday.
"That's at least the goal to work towards."
The Senate version is still in the works, and Dorgan has vowed
to make it a priority.
Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2007
to President Bush
to Alberto Gonzales
Indian Health Service - http://www.ihs.gov
Indian Health Board - http://www.nihb.org
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