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Indian issues weren't on Kempthorne's agenda in Senate

During his six years in the U.S. Senate, Interior Secretary nominee Dirk Kempthorne signed onto just one piece of legislation related to tribal matters, according to a review of Congressional records.

Elected in 1993, Kempthorne sat on some key committees -- Armed Services, Environment and Public Works and Small Business. But he didn't use his positions to advance, or oppose, Indian issues.

The only Indian-related bill he put his name to was a resolution to designate November as Native American Heritage Month. He did that twice -- in 1995 and 1996 -- along with every other member of the Senate.

Kempthorne did co-sponsor other pieces legislation that included some tribal provisions. The most significant were proposals to clean up the Coeur d'Alene Basin, a Superfund site in northern Idaho that is home to the Coeur d'Alene Tribe. The bills would have given the tribe a role in the restoration and management of the basin, which has been polluted by a century of mine waste.

Another measure he co-sponsored, along with 29 other senators, would have given tribes across the nation a greater role in nuclear waste policy. The bill targeted Yucca Mountain in Nevada, the site of the federal government's waste repository that is located on Western Shoshone lands.

But other than these handful of bills, the future governor of Idaho dedicated most of his time advancing what could be termed as conservative causes. He repeatedly sought to limit the influence of labor unions, a traditionally Democratic constituency, on the federal government. He signed onto measures that would outlaw desecration of the American flag.

He also co-sponsored legislation to split up the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which hears more Indian law cases than any other appellate court. Conservatives like Kempthorne have accused the court of judicial activism, a term usually applied to decisions that run counter to the conservative agenda. The 9th Circuit often sides with tribes in sovereignty dispute only to be reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court

Four years in a row, Kempthorne joined former Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Washington), a noted foe of tribal sovereignty, and other Western senators in an attempt to put states that lean Republican -- like Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Oregon -- in their own circuit. The proposal, which remains an issue today, would give Republicans more control over the judges chosen for the new court.

Kempthorne's scant record on Indian affairs as a senator contrasts with his record as a governor. Since being elected in 1999, he has negotiated Class III gaming compacts, signed agreements to recognize tribal sovereignty, settled the Nez Perce Tribe's water rights dispute, included the Nez Perce Tribe in a wolf management agreement and attempted to resolve a dispute between the Coeur d'Alene Tribe and a mining company.

"I commend the governor for his leadership in signing the proclamation that recognizes the sovereignty of the Nez Perce Tribe and the other Idaho tribes," said Anthony Johnson, the former vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe, after a signing in July 2002.

With his confirmation as the 49th Interior Secretary a near certainty, Kempthorne will encounter many of these same issues once he returns to Washington. Supporters on both sides of the aisle praise his ability to build consensus, a key trait at a department where tribal, industry and public interest are often in conflict.

"Everything I know about him tells me he will be confirmed and make an excellent secretary," said Sen. Pete Domenici (R-New Mexico), the chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Domenici's committee will consider Kempthorne's nomination although no date for confirmation hearings has been announced. In the past, members of the panel have asked Interior Department nominees about their views on gaming, land-into-trust, sovereignty and the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit.

White House Announcement:
President Bush Nominates Dirk Kempthorne as Interior Secretary (March 16, 2006)

Relevant Links:
Thomas, Congressional database -
Coeur d'Alene Tribe -
Nez Perce Tribe -
Shoshone-Bannock Tribes -
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne -