Shift in Senate means changes for Indian Country
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MAY 25, 2001

With Thursday's decision by Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont to leave the Republican party and become an independent, the balance of power in the Senate shifts to Democratic control for the first time since 1994.

The change comes 120-some odd days into an administration characterized by markedly different views of the Senate on President George W. Bush's tax cut, budget, judicial nominees, and national energy policy. But while party leaders search for someone to blame for the shake down, Indian Country is due for a number of changes once the transition is complete.

For the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, leadership would move from Ben Nighthorse Cambpbell of Colorado to Daniel Inouye of Hawaii. Both are considered strong advocates for tribal sovereignty and Inouye has chaired the committee before, so the legislative agenda is not likely to be altered much.

But the change could turn into a positive for Native Hawaiians, whose government-to-government relationship with the United States has been in limbo for the past year. The House passed a bill to recognize a Native Hawaiian government but the Senate failed to act on it last session.

Inouye and Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, in January reintroduced the bill. Inouye will now have the power to prioritize it.

Democrats like Byron Dorgon of North Dakota who questioned Secretary of Interior Gale Norton's spending priorities for Indian Country will soon get bigger voices in the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee as leadership passes from Conrad Burns of Montana to Robert Byrd of Virginia. But the committee also includes two Republicans -- Campbell and Pete Domenici of New Mexico -- who have pushed Norton to ensure Indian education and tribal priority allocations (TPA) are adequately funded.

Domenici yesterday, however, discounted the idea the switch would affect his role. He said: "I do not believe that it will significantly hinder my ability to get things done" on mental health, energy, and education -- areas of interest for tribes.

Still, New Mexico's senior Senator stands to lose two chairmanships: the powerful Budget Committee and the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over most parts of the Department of Energy. Domenici has been disappointed with the agency's funding cuts, which include a number of slashes to Indian Country programs.

Harry Reid is the ranking Democrat of the subcommittee and for tribes opposed to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project in Nevada, he would be their strongest ally should he take over. Reid, however, has offered to give the position to Jeffords.

Jeffords departure ripples through to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Frank Murkowski of Alaska would step aside for Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico as chairman. Murkowski has been the biggest proponent of opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development and is the chief sponsor of a bill to realign the nation's energy policies with President Bush's.

The change in leadership to Bingaman, a drilling opponent, would be a positive for the Gwich'in Nation of Alaska, who are fighting development. But it would also mean a setback for Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the Inupiat Eskimos who support drilling in their own lands.

Bingaman has his own energy policy bill, one which includes provisions to increase development of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power. But while it calls for increasing power lines and expanding the natural gas pipeline, it includes a call for caps on petroleum usage for light vehicles and on rising costs of gasoline, which Bush said he could not control.

Bingaman chaired the committee for a brief period in January and oversaw the confirmation hearing of Norton. He was critical of her record and would now oversee other Interior nominees whose views environmentalists have questioned.

The confirmation of Neal McCaleb to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs would be handled by Inouye's committee, though. Hearings have yet to be scheduled.

In the area of judicial nominees, control of the Judiciary Committee would move from Orrin Hatch of Utah to Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Tribal leaders have become increasingly interested in Bush's picks ever since 49 Republicans recommended former colleague Slade Gorton be considered to the federal bench.

(John McCain of Arizona did not support the recommendation because he disagreed with Gorton's stance on sovereignty, said his spokesperson.)

The committee will be looking at a number of nominees who have fought against tribal sovereignty, including District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals pick John G. Roberts. Roberts successfully represented the state of Alaska in its fight against the recognition of Alaska Native authority over village lands.

He also represented the state of Hawaii in its defense of Native Hawaiian programs. However, he lost the case to Theodore B. Olson, Bush's pick as Solicitor General at the Department of Justice.

The committee deadlocked 9-9 along party lines on Olson's nomination. But last night, the full Senate confirmed him by a vote of 51 to 47. Zell Miller of Georgia and Ben Nelson of Nebraska were the two Democrats who voted for Olson, narrowly tipping the scale in his favor.

Democrats won't officially gain control of the Senate at least until June 5, when Congress returns from the one-week Memorial Day break.

Relevant Links:
Indian Affairs Committee -
Interior Appropriations Subcommittee -
Judiciary Committee -
Energy and Natural Resources Committee -

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Battles over Olson continue (5/23)
Bush names judges to Montana federal court (5/22)
Alaska Natives square off over Arctic drilling (5/18)
Bush nominee familiar with Indian law (5/9)
Norton hit on environment, budget (4/25)