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Busy Indian Affairs Committee hits snag on big issues

High-profile bills to apologize to Native peoples and to make changes to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act were delayed on Wednesday over objections from members of the Senate.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee was due to consider a slew of bills at a business meeting in the morning. But the day got off to a slow start when the panel went into an executive session, forcing a large crowd of people to wait in the hallway for more than 30 minutes.

Senate staff and other observers said it was the first time in recent history that such a session was called. Several members of the committee, including Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), John McCain (R-Arizona) and Harry Reid (D-Nevada), filed into the fourth-floor room, which was closed to the public and the press.

When the open proceedings finally got started, Campbell, chairman of the committee, said he agreed to hold back the apology resolution and the gaming amendments at the request of other members. The bills will be considered at a meeting next week.

What Campbell didn't talk about was another high-profile item on the agenda: a motion for the committee to issue subpoenas as part of a probe into high lobbying fees paid by four tribes. McCain, angered at reports that a Republican lobbyist and a close associate received at least $45 million, spearheaded the investigation.

Several staff members were tight-lipped about the private session but today, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) confirmed that the subpoenas were approved. "I supported the subpoenas being issued by the committee," he said in a conference call. "This is unprecedented but I think it is overdue that the committee establish the precedent that it does have the right to require people to come before the committee to testify."

News reports suggested that one of the tribes involved, the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, was not cooperating with the investigation. But Johnson said the committee acted to subpoena lobbyists -- not tribes -- who charged "enormous sums" for their services.

"The subpoenas are being issued to require Washington lobbyists to come before the committee," he said. Former Greenberg Traurig lobbyist Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a public relations executive, are at the center of the controversy.

S.J.Res.37, the apology resolution, was introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), who does not sit on the committee, and is co-sponsored by Campbell and Inouye. It offers a formal apology to Native peoples for "official depredations and ill-conceived policies" of the United States.

The resolution has been delayed before. The latest objection comes from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a committee member, who wants a separate apology for Alaska Natives. Like Brownback, she is hoping to have one passed by the opening of the new National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., in September.

S.1529, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act Amendments of 2003, is sponsored by Campbell and has also been held up. Reid, who is trying to protect the interests of Nevada casinos, has objected because he said it cuts states out of the growing tribal gaming industry.

Several measures did clear the committee yesterday. They were:
  • S.297, the Federal Acknowledgement Process Reform Act;
  • S.1696, the Department of Health and Human Services Tribal Self-Governance Amendments Act;
  • S.1715, the Department of Interior Tribal Self Governance Act;
  • S.2172, the Tribal Contract Support Cost Technical Amendments Act;
  • S.2277, a bill affecting contracts on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Reservation in Arizona; and
  • S. 2436, a bill to reauthorize the Native American Programs Act of 1974.

During the committee meeting, Campbell was told by staff members that the Bush administration was objecting to many of the provisions in the bills. Campbell noted that time is running out to pass the measures, which he said are important to advancing tribal interests.

"I think we only have, maybe, 47 days of actual work here," he said. "Senator Inouye, my colleague and friend, and I are running out of time too as chairman and the ranking member on the committee."

Business Committee Meeting/Hearing (June 16, 2004)

Relevant Documents:
Text of Apology Resolution [As Introduced] | Sen. Brownback Statement on Resolution | Link to S.J.RES.37