President Donald Trump salutes Medal of Honor recipient retired U.S. Army Capt. Gary M. Rose, and fellow Vietnam veteran “Battle Buddies" at the White House on October 23, 2017. Photo: Joyce N. Boghosian / White House

Tribal employment measure gives President Trump his first chance to sign an Indian bill

President Donald Trump is getting a much-needed opportunity to move past his "Pocahontas" controversy and sign his first stand-alone Indian bill into law.

Trump has faced harsh criticism from Indian Country and members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- for injecting the slur into an event featuring elderly Navajo war heroes. His comment, which came at the close of Native American Heritage Month, generated significant media coverage this week.

But as Trump approaches the end of his first year in office, he is getting an early Christmas gift, thanks to lawmakers from both parties. A bipartisan bill -- H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act -- will soon be crossing his desk, allowing him to claim a role in improving economic conditions in Indian Country.

“This bill will help spur economic development and investment in Indian Country,” Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said in a press release on Thursday.

H.R.228 cleared its final hurdle in the 115th Congress on Wednesday, when the Senate approved it by unanimous consent. That means there were no objections in the chamber.

The House passed the bill on February 27 under a suspension of the rules. There were no objections at the time either.

“After more than 5 years of work developing and advancing this legislation, I’m happy to see it head to the president’s desk to be signed into law,” Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), the sponsor of H.R.228, said in a press release on Thursday.

"This is Indian Country’s victory,” he added.

The bill addresses what is commonly known in Indian Country as the 477 program, whose name comes the federal law which first authorized it. According to the Department of Labor, the program allows tribes and Alaska Native entities to combine employment, education and training-related grants into a single plan, with a single budget and a single reporting system. It can include funds from Johnson-O'Malley, Tribal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and other critical programs.

“The program has proven to be an innovative and effective tool in providing education and training opportunities aimed to improve the quality of life in every region of my home state of Alaska," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said on Thursday. She introduced a companion version, S.91, which cleared the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on February 8.

H.R.228 makes a number of improvements to the 477 program that were suggested by tribes. More significantly, it makes the program permanent, so tribes won't have to keep coming back to Congress and ask for it to extended.

"This highly successful program authorizes tribal governments to consolidate up to 13 different federal grant programs into a single plan with a single budget in a single reporting system," Rep. Norma Torres (D-California), the top Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs, said back in February.

There were no hearings in the House or the Senate on H.R.228 this year but both chambers had advanced nearly identical versions in prior sessions. In hopes of speeding up action, Hoeven and other lawmakers have placed a priority on those types of bills, particularly those with bipartisan support.

Since there were no hearings, the Trump administration didn't get an opportunity to state its views on the matter. But in his first Native American Heritage Month proclamation, the president promised to adopt policies to "enhance economic well-being of Native American communities" and he said that he would "always come to the aid of Native American people in times of crisis."

That otherwise positive message, however, went missing at his event with the Code Talkers from the Navajo Nation on Monday. He declined to offer remarks that had been prepared for him, instead bringing up his widely-criticized slur.

"You're very, very special people," Trump told the Code Talkers, who served in World War II, developing and transmitting codes in their language that were never broken.

"You were here long before any of us were here," Trump said before making his "Pocahontas" jab at a political rival.

Passage of H.R.228 on Wednesday marked a busy day for the Senate. In total, nine Indian bills were approved in the chamber, all by unanimous consent.

“We’re working to pass commonsense, bipartisan measures for Indian Country,” Hoeven said on Thursday. “Advancing key initiatives to strengthen energy and economic development, enhance public and road safety, and improve land and water resources management is part of our commitment to raising the quality of life in tribal communities throughout the country."

Of the nine bills, only H.R.228 can be sent to Trump for his signature. The rest await action in the House.

The full list of bills passed on Wednesday follows:
• H.R.228, the Indian Employment, Training and Related Services Consolidation Act of 2017;
• S.245, the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2017;
• S.254, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act;
• S.302, the John P. Smith Act;
• S.343, the Repealing Existing Substandard Provisions Encouraging Conciliation with Tribes Act;
• S.669, the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act;
• S.772, the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2017;
• S.825, the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium Land Transfer Act of 2017; and
• S.1285, the Oregon Tribal Economic Development Act.

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