Partisan debate emerges over BIA overhaul
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As tribal leaders look to Congressional allies to express opposition to a reorganization of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, they are finding an increasingly partisan debate that could hamper their campaign to stop the controversial proposal.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that trust management problems at the Department of Interior need to be resolved with input from Indian Country. But Republicans and Democrats with an interest in the issue have offered divergent views about Secretary Gale Norton's plan.

GOP members, as one observer put it, have "circled the wagons around Norton," and are encouraging tribes to let the government make the case to strip the BIA of its trust duties and hand them to a new agency. On the other hand, Democrats -- in varying degrees of criticism -- have chided Norton and her top officials for not consulting with tribes beforehand and for showing they "don't know what they are doing," summed up a top Democrat aide.

To be sure, a number of lawmakers with strong ties to Indian Country haven't offered a public response, for any number of reasons. Chief on the Senate side are Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), the chairman and members of the Indian Affairs Committee, respectively, whom aides said were still reviewing the matter.

Those who have commented, such as Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-N.M.) and Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), have reflected the emerging partisan battle. And yesterday, the House got into the debate as the chamber was considering a resolution to honor November as Native American Month with just three days left to observe the designation.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the House panel with jurisdiction over Indian affairs, has already criticized Norton for keeping everyone "in the dark" about the overhaul. He reiterated those feelings on the House floor.

"Unfortunately, this decision was made without consulting with the account holders or the Congress," Rahall said. "In fact, details of this brand new agency are almost non-existent so we do not know if this is a good answer or just another hastily thrown together concept."

The comment drew protests from Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.), co-chairman of the House Native American Caucus and a member of a task force that has called for hearings on the trust fund debacle. He said Rahall was using the overhaul to blame a century-long problem on Republicans while ignoring the Clinton administration's record on a lawsuit seeking a proper accounting of individual Indian assets.

"This problem has been one, sadly, of bipartisan neglect," said Hayworth, who also sits with Rahall on the House Resources Committee. Republicans, he said as he sought to draw a distinction from Democrats, "welcome the opportunity in a non-partisan fashion to solve this legitimate problem."

Agreeing was another Republican from the Indian panel, Rep. James Cannon of Utah. "I believe this [GOP] administration is trying to resolve [the mess]," he said, "and we want to support them in doing that."

Not one to back down from a dispute, Rahall countered that he was well aware of the long history of failures by all administrations, regardless of affiliation. Chiming in was Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) who just returned from the annual convention of the National Congress of American Indians, where he said tribal leaders aired complaints about Norton's scheme.

"Just the other day, the administration issued an edict that it was going to recreate an organizational structure," said Inslee, "without any consultation at all by the people who will be affected by this major change. Never even picked up the phone to talk to tribal leaders."

"What type of government-to-government relationship is that?" he questioned.

Despite the squabbling, tribal leaders said they need all the help they can get from lawmakers. "We're working with members right now" on strategies, said Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota and a chief reorganization opponent who has allied more than two dozen tribes against it.

But the Native American Rights Fund attorney whose lawsuit over individual trust assets sparked Norton's response said another party will have the most power over the Bush administration: U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, the federal judge who has presided over the matter for five years.

"I think a lot of this is going to depend on what the judge says," said Keith Harper, who was giving tribal leaders updates about the case yesterday at NCAI. "He's driving everything that's happening."

Today on Indianz.Com:
Trust fund settlement talks fail (11/28)
NCAI shoring up Norton opposition (11/28)
Tribal leaders challenging Norton (11/28)
Norton wants to cut Interior jobs (11/28)

Relevant Links:
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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