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McCain takes on controversial topics in 109th Congress

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is confronting a number of controversial topics as he makes his second run as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The maverick Republican only plans to run the committee for two years but during that time he expects to tackle the federal budget, trust reform off-reservation gaming and a lobbying scandal that affected six tribes. He also hopes to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which faltered last year due to delays from the Bush administration.

McCain laid out his broad agenda at the National Congress of American Indians winter session last Tuesday. He said he wants to solicit tribal input "about what we should be doing" at the committee.

One issue where tribes have already raised their voices involves President Bush's fiscal year 2006 budget. More than $200 million has been cut from critical education, housing, health and other programs.

McCain said he agrees with tribal criticism of the budget. "They're not good, obviously," he said of the cuts. "We need to restore those programs."

McCain cited a recent Harvard University study that tied improvements in income and employment on reservations to tribes that exercise greater control of their own affairs. He said it was clear that self-governance is improving the quality of life in Indian Country.

"For us to deprive tribes of programs that support self-governance is clearly a self-defeating enterprise," he told NCAI.

Beyond the budget, McCain called the trust fund debacle a "cloud" hanging over Indian Country and the federal government. He said it is necessary to settle the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit, which was filed in 1996 and has been raging in the courts ever since.

"It's a terrible injustice and it needs to be fixed," McCain said. "If we don't fix it then it's going to impact everything that we do."

In years past, McCain has led efforts to reform the trust but has seen little success. He is holding an oversight hearing on Wednesday to get an update on the situation.

Among those expected to testify are NCAI President Tex Hall and Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray. Last week, Hall said tribes need to get involved now or Congress will impose a solution on Indian Country.

"If we don't, the price we will pay for our inaction, is that Congress will give us a bill instead," Hall said. McCain also said he is worried that Congressional appropriators will devise their own solution through a legislative rider.

"I urge all of you to join with me in attempting to resolve this issue," he told NCAI.

Of McCain's agenda, perhaps the most controversial issue is off-reservation gaming. Dozens of tribes throughout the nation are seeking to build casinos on lands hundreds of miles away from their existing base, sometimes in other states. Proposals are pending in California, Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota and New York.

McCain, an original sponsor of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, said this trend was clearly not envisioned when Congress passed the law in 1988. "There's some who would argue off-reservation gaming benefits tribes," he said. "This may be true for some tribes."

"But I think it's foolhardy to ignore the backlash that could and, in fact, is resulting from the expansion of gaming in areas never contemplated" by IGRA, he added.

McCain plans to hold hearings on off-reservation gaming and other gaming-related issues, including federal recognition. "One of the consequences of off-reservation gaming has been the heightened scrutiny it's brought to tribal recognition," he said of the slow-moving process. "It's now being accused of being improperly influenced by outside interests."

A number of prominent tribal leaders and tribal organizations, notably the California Nations Indian Gaming Association, have already called on Congress to step in and curtail off-reservation proposals. Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California), chairman of the House Resources Committee, is expected to introduce a bill this week.

NCAI doesn't have a position off-reservation gaming and neither does the National Indian Gaming Association, the chief tribal gaming lobby. But both groups are planning to hold three forums -- on March 24 in Washington, D.C., on April 13 at NIGA'a trade show in California and at the Great Plains Indian Gaming Association conference in May -- to solicit tribal views on the hot topic.

"Some people speculated that there's politics setting around our position," Stevens said last Wednesday of NIGA's decision not to take a stand for or against off-reservation gaming. "I just want to make sure everybody understands it's not about politics, it's about policy."

Another controversial issue is McCain's investigation of disgraced Washington lobbyists Jack Abramoff and Michael Scanlon. Six tribes gave at least $82 million to the pair for services that McCain and others have called into question.

"We really haven't gotten through all of it," he said. "There's a lot more that's coming out of this." Additional hearings are planned.

A final issue is passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, which has been delayed for several years. McCain wouldn't go into the reasons for the delay but former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), former chairman of the committee, laid the blame on the White House.

"The administration was kind of talking to us two different ways," Campbell said last Tuesday. He noted that former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson pledged support for the bill but that the White House kept picking it apart and saying it was unsatisfactory.

In addition to this week's hearing on trust reform, the committee will consider the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, a bill to recognize a Native Hawaiian governing entity. McCain expressed doubts about the bill but promised to send it to the Senate floor if supported by a majority of committee members. A full vote this spring is expected.

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