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Indianz.Com Video: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Organizational Business Meeting – February 9, 2023
‘Bipartisanship is our strength’
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs touts achievements as new session starts
Monday, February 13, 2023

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is getting back to work after what the legislative panel’s bipartisan leadership said was an extremely productive session.

At the panel’s first meeting of the 118th Congress last week, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said 18 Indian Country bills were signed into law during the prior session. The figure means the committee has finally overcome the era of stagnation that was seen when Donald Trump was president and when Republicans controlled the legislative branch of the U.S. government.

“By any measure, the last two years were the most productive in recent decades and arguably the most productive in American history for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs,” said Schatz, who is serving a second term as chair of the panel.

Historic achievements can be found among the 18 bills that became law during the 117th Congress, which concluded at the end of December. Advance appropriations for the Indian Health Service, as well as another landmark update for the Violence Against Women Act, both of which had been hard fought by tribes for several years, are just two of the most notable successes.

Indianz.Com Audio: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Organizational Business Meeting – February 9, 2023

But Schatz also pointed out that tribes and their citizens are benefiting from a record influx of funding for services and programs in reservation and urban communities across the nation. According to a new committee report, more than $73 billion — the largest amount ever in U.S. history — has been provided to Indian Country through COVID-19 recovery, appropriations and infrastructure bills that became law in 2021 and 2022.

“None of these achievements would’ve been possible without this committee’s bipartisan commitment to Native people in Indian Country, in Alaska and in Hawaii,” Schatz said at an organizational meeting last Thursday. “Because our long-standing tradition of bipartisanship is our strength.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is returning as vice chair of the committee, agreed. She pledged to work closely with Schatz and other committee members to advance laws that improve education, health, safety, transportation and other needs in Native communities.

“It really is impactful what this committee has done, when you think about the success of the infrastructure bill last year and how we rose to meet the needs across Indian Country,” Murkowski said of just one of the measures passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

“I’m hearing from people all over my state about the enthusiasm for what they will see with better access to broadband that will allow for everything from tele-health to tele-education, [and] what more they can be doing to make their communities stronger,” she said. “And then everything that we’ve done with water and wastewater, transportation — it was significant.”

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs – 117th Congress Accomplishments

Additionally, the committee played a major role in confirming Roselyn Tso, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, as the new director of the IHS. The federal agency, which is charged with providing care to more than 2 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, had been without a permanent leader for six of the last seven years, including for most of the Trump administration, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Indian Country hard.

The panel also helped install Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community, as the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs. As a political appointee of the Biden administration, he is serving under Secretary Deb Haaland, who herself is making history as the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior and the first Native person in a presidential cabinet.

“As chair, I’m determined to work with all of you to build on our bipartisan achievements and get even more things done for Native communities,” Schatz noted. “And so I look forward to a productive 118th Congress.”

The 118th Congress convened on January 3, with Democrats winning more seats in the U.S. Senate following the November 2022 election. Their party thus controls all of the committees in the chamber, though Indian Affairs is unique in that it has historically been run on a bipartisan basis ever since its establishment nearly 50 years ago, during a new dawn of self-determination in federal law and policy.

With the start of the newest session, the membership of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is largely staying the same. Along with Schatz returning as chair, the five Democrats have previously served on the panel. They are: Sen. Maria Cantwel (D-Washington), Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nevada), Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minnesota) and Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-New Mexico).

The Republican side of the committee is changing in small yet notable ways. Including Murkowski as vice chair, only five GOP members are serving — down from six in the prior session of Congress.

But Murkowski pointed out that the committee is gaining an important member in Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma). He is the first tribal citizen to serve in the Senate in nearly two decades.

“For the first time since 2005, when Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell was here in the Senate, a Native American has now been elected to the Senate and is gonna be serving on this important committee,” Murkowski said of the new Republican member. “So I think that’s a welcome addition.”

Mullin, however, missed his historic day in the spotlight. The Cherokee Nation citizen, who previously served four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, wandered into the organizational meeting — just as it was ending.

“This hearing is adjourned,” Schatz said as Mullin entered the committee room, coffee cup in tow.

Mullin can be seen throwing his hands in the air as he realizes he missed the important meeting, which was the committee’s first of the 118th Congress. His colleagues, as well as staff, started laughing.

The meeting was scheduled to start at 11am Eastern in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. It lasted only about 7 minutes but Mullin is eager to get to work for Indian Country even if he did show up late.

“The Indian Affairs Committee plays a vital role in ensuring that the federal government upholds its trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal nations,” Mullin said in a statement. “I look forward to strengthening tribal sovereignty, pursuing self-determination policies, and fostering economic growth in Indian Country. Let’s get to work.”

In addition to Murkowski and Mullin, the Republican members of the committee are Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota), Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana) and Sen. Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota). With the loss of one GOP seat and the arrival of Mullin, Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) are no longer serving on the panel.

Lisa Murkowski and Brian Schatz
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), left, and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) serve as vice chair and chair, respectively of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, having been named to the leadership positions during an organizational business meeting in Washington, D.C., on February 9, 2023. Photo: SCIA

With the chair and vice chair selected, as well as the rules adopted at last week’s organizational meeting, the committee is convening this Wednesday for another business meeting. The panel is due to consider and advance three Indian Country measures:

Prior to the organizational meeting, the committee hosted an interview with Nicole Aunapu Mann, a citizen of the Round Valley Indian Tribes who is the first Native woman in space. She spoke with lawmakers from the International Space Station last Tuesday, February 7.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notices
Downlink with NASA Astronaut Nicole Mann (February 7, 2023)
Organizational Business Meeting (February 9, 2023)
Business Meeting to consider S. 70, S. 277 & S. 385 (February 15, 2023)

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