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Sen. Craig Thomas, vice chairman of Indian panel, dies at 74

Sen. Craig Thomas
The late Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming) with National Congress of American Indians President Joe Garcia at NCAI's 2007 winter session in Washington, D.C. Photo © NSM.
Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), the vice chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, died on Monday after a battle with leukemia. He was 74.

Thomas assumed the leadership post this past January and was a long-running member of the committee. He advocated for the two tribes in his state on law enforcement, economic development, energy and other issues.

"I'm always interested in the economic energy policy ... so tribes can help themselves and be in a better position financially," he said at a recent hearing, expressing a theme of self-sufficiency that he often took towards Indian Country.

Though Thomas only served as vice chairman for a few months, his work on Indian affairs dated back to his six years in the House. He was the top Republican on the House Subcommittee on Native American Affairs during the 103rd Congress.

That session, from 1993 to 1994, saw a flurry of activity on Capitol Hill. A number of significant bills -- including the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act, the Tribal Self-Governance Act and the Indian Tribal Justice Act -- were enacted with the help of Thomas and former Rep. Bill Richardson (D-New Mexico), who was chairman of the subcommittee.

After Republicans took control of Congress in 1994 Thomas moved to the Senate, where he went on to serve two full terms. He was re-elected to a third term in November 2006 and was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, which affects blood and bone marrow, shortly after his victory.

After undergoing chemotherapy, he returned to work when the committee met in January under Democratic control. Among other actions, he signed on as a co-sponsor to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, the Indian Youth Telemental Health Demonstration Project Act, amendments to the Indian Child Protection and Family Violence Prevention Act and amendments to the Indian Crafts and Arts Act.

He also co-sponsored a bill to ensure tribes receive anti-methamphetamine funds, an issue of importance to the tribes on the 2.2-million acre Wind River Reservation in his state. "We have only seven officers to patrol during the week, similar to many other reservations of that kind," he said at a law enforcement hearing last month.

Though Thomas, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps, said he was feeling well, he started receiving chemotherapy treatment last month. He was reported to be in serious condition yesterday, and he died at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, last night.

Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) will now pick a successor from three finalists chosen by state Republicans. On the Senate committee, the most senior Republican is John McCain of Arizona, though he just finished a stint as chairman in the 109th Congress, followed by Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, Gordon Smith or Oregon and Richard Burr of North Carolina.

After the Memorial Day recess, the committee was set to return to work on Thursday to hold an oversight hearing on transportation issues. The hearing has been postponed in light of Thomas' passing.

"I am deeply saddened to learn of the death of Senator Craig Thomas. I had the opportunity to work closely with him on a number of committees and issues. He was a wonderful man whose word was his bond and who cared deeply for his home state of Wyoming and for the future of this country," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the committee.

Relevant Links:
Sen. Craig Thomas -
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -