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Native Hawaiian sovereignty bill to be debated in U.S. Senate in June

Saturday, May 13, 2006

The U.S. Senate has scheduled debate and a vote in June on a bill that would allegedly initiate a process for Native Hawaiians to achieve the same level of self-governance and autonomy over their own affairs that many Native American tribes currently have. Critics of the bill characterize it as going much further than any existing tribal recognition, creating a governing entity based solely on race, without the same requirements as needed for Native American tribal recognition, such as having existed predominantly as a distinct community, having exercised political influence over its members as an autonomous entity, and have continuously been identified as a tribal entity since 1900.

Senator Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), the main proponent of bill S. 147 (the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act) and a Native Hawaiian himself, had been giving daily speeches on the Senate floor since May 9 in support of the bill to raise awareness of it. His advocacy of the bill has led it to become known as the "Akaka Bill." Opponents of the Akaka bill have made daily responses to the Senator's speeches as well.

"I thank our majority leader, the senior senator from Tennessee, who is working to uphold his commitment to bring this bill to the Senate floor for a debate and roll call vote," Akaka said after receiving the pledge from Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) on Friday. He also recognized his chief opponent, Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who worked with Akaka "to uphold his promise to allow the bill to come to the floor for a debate and roll call vote."

Frist is expected to file a cloture motion after the Senate returns from its May recess. A vote on the cloture motion would occur within 48 hours of filing.

Opponents of the bill, including Kyl, charge that the bill is a race-based privilege that the U.S. Constitution prohibits. Others, such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) imply that passage of the bill could have unintended consequences. In a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday that preceded Akaka's, Alexander likened the bill to recognizing Hispanic populations descended from pre-republican Texas or giving tribal status to the Amish or Hasidic Jews, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported.

Akaka believes that he has bipartisan support for his bill, with four Republican senators pledging support for it. At least six Republican senators would need to vote for the bill for it to pass, assuming that the bill receives solid support from Akaka's fellow Democrats and the chamber's one independent member who usually votes with the Democrats.

A recent report from the U.S. Civil Rights Commission recommended that the bill be rejected. [1](PDF)

The Commission recommends against passage of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005 (S. 147) as reported out of committee on May 16, 2005, or any other legislation that would discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups accorded varying degrees of privilege.

Although the U.S. Civil Rights Commission redacted the findings section of their draft report before approving their final report, opponents of the Akaka bill have challenged the characterization of the findings section as being "historically inaccurate" by Akaka bill supporters.

Supporters of the bill, which include the Democratic members of Hawaii's congressional delegation and Republican governor Linda Lingle, counter that Hawaii is a unique case because of its former history as an independent nation before the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

Kyl had placed a block on the bill when it was originally placed on the Senate schedule in July 2005, but has since agreed to allow the bill to come to a floor vote. The bill was later deferred indefinitely due in part to Hurricane Katrina.

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