Senate panel approves 14 bills at business meeting

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee advanced a broad agenda on Wednesday, approving a number of bills affecting Indian gaming, lobbying and other high-profile issues.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman, presided over a 45-minute business meeting that was notable not just for the lengthy agenda [Link]. A total of 10 senators, the most in recent history, attended in full or in part to vote or speak about particular bills. The committee has 14 members.

The biggest item on the agenda was S.113, a bill to modify the date as of which certain tribal land of the Lytton Rancheria is deemed to be held in trust. McCain described the measure as "controversial" because it would require the Lytton Band of Pomo Indians to seek state and federal approval before opening a casino on off-reservation parcel in San Pablo, California.

McCain said approval of the bill was probably an "academic" exercise now that state lawmakers have decided not to take up the tribe's gaming compact. But he said the way in which the tribe obtained the land -- through a rider in an omnibus bill -- pointed to the much larger debate on off-reservation gaming.

"I was approached yesterday about establishing a casino in downtown Cleveland,' McCain said. "It's indicative of the magnitude of this issue."

Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) was the only committee member who spoke out against the proposal, which he said he would oppose on the Senate floor. At his request, the bill was subject to a recorded vote, a rare practice for the committee.

The clerk called the roll and the vote was 9 to 3 in favor of the bill. Joining McCain and Dorgan in voting yes were Sens. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma), Kent Conrad (D-North Dakota) and Maria Cantwell (D-Washington).

Joining Inouye in voting no were Sens. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota). Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) was not present to vote and did not send a proxy.

Later, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico) showed up to the meeting and McCain allowed him to register a yes vote, making the roll call 10 to 3. The bill will now be considered on the Senate floor, where it is likely to spark considerable debate.

In other business, the committee approved 13 other bills. Although none were quite as controversial as the Lytton bill, some were the subject of debate and will be open to potential amendments.

Dorgan and Johnson said they would seek to amend S.1312, a bill to require former federal employees who are employed by tribes to adhere to conflicts of interest laws. The two senators want to make sure tribal governments who hire lobbyists are treated the same as state and local governments.

McCain said the bill would correct a "revolving door problem" seen in Washington in recent years. Former Bureau of Indian Affairs employees who lobby for tribes will be subject to the "same conflict of interest laws" as other federal employees, he said.

Dorgan also was concerned about S.1295, a bill to authorize funding for the National Indian Gaming Commission. He said he wants to make sure the measure recognizes the "government-to-government relationship between tribes and the NIGC."

The bill allows NIGC to increase its budget, currently capped at $8 million, to upwards of $12 million. McCain said the change was necessary due to explosion of the $19 billion Indian gaming industry.

"We will continue with a series of hearings" on the matter, McCain said. The growth of tribal casinos "clearly requires our examination," he noted.

Thomas voiced concerns about S.1239, a bill to authorize the use of Indian Health Service funds to pay Medicare Part D premiums on behalf of Indians. "There's not sovereignty under Medicare," he told a committee staffer who said the bill will help tribes pay costs under recent Medicare reforms.

The bill is somewhat urgent, McCain said, because IHS needs to start paying the Medicare premiums by November. While it was approved by a voice vote, he said he wouldn't send it to the floor until the committee receives the Bush administration's views.

The other bills approved yesterday were:
S.J.Res.15 A bill to acknowledge a long history of official depredations and ill-conceived policies by the United States Government regarding Indian tribes and offer an apology to all Native Peoples on behalf of the United States. "I am proud to be a co-sponsor," said Dorgan.
Senate committee debates U.S. apology resolution (05/26)

S.374 A bill to provide compensation to the Lower Brule and Crow Creek Sioux Tribes of South Dakota for damage to tribal land caused by Pick-Sloan projects along the Missouri River. The bill increases the trust account established for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe of South Dakota from $39.3 million to $186.8 million and the account for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe of South Dakota from $27.5 million to $105.9 million.
Bill would add $226M to tribal trust accounts (01/24)

S.881, a bill to compensate the Spokane Tribe of Indians for the use of tribal land for the production of hydropower by the Grand Coulee Dam, and for other purposes. "I appreciate the committee putting this on the docket," said Cantwell, the bill's sponsor. The committee previously held a hearing on the measure in October 2003.
Witness List | View Hearing

S.449, a bill to facilitate shareholder consideration of proposals to make Settlement Common Stock under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act available to missed enrollees, eligible elders, and persons born after Dec. 18, 1971, and for other purposes. "This would correct an impediment ... to bringing in any shareholders born after 1971," said Murkowski, the sponsor.

H.R.797 (S. 475), a bill to amend the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 and other Acts to improve housing programs for Indians. The bill modifies existing laws to cover tribal housing programs and to make tribes qualify for funding "that up until now they have been denied," said Johnson, one of the sponsors.

H.R.680 (S. 623) A bill to direct the Secretary of Interior to convey certain land held in trust for the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah to the City of Richfield, Utah and for other purposes.

S.598 A bill to reauthorize provisions in the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act of 1996 relating to Native Hawaiian low-income housing and Federal loan guarantees for Native Hawaiian housing. "After 84 years, we still have Hawaiians waiting for homes," said Akaka.

S.1291 A bill to condemn certain subsurface rights to land held in trust by the State of Arizona, and convey subsurface rights held by BLM, for the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. McCain said the bill was requested by the state of Arizona and the tribe Pascua Yaqui Tribe.

S.1231 A bill to provide initial funding for the National Fund for Excellence in American Indian Education previously established by Congress.
Bush blasted on Indian education at hearing (6/17) | Senate oversight hearing on Indian education (6/16)

S.731, a bill to amend the Tribally Controlled Community College and Universities Assistance Act. The bill establishes a loan forgiveness program for people who teach at tribal colleges. "The measure is a needed one," said McCain, a co-sponsor. Conrad, the sponsor, plans to make a slight change to the definition of "teacher," Dorgan said.

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