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Politics
Senate committee takes up slate of Indian bills


Update 10:42am: After considerable debate, the committee approved S.1057, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments. The committee narrowly rejected an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) to limit a program in Alaska that allows non-dentists to perform irreversible dental procedures. In its place, the committee adopted an amendment that restricts the program to Alaska, striking a provision that would have allowed it to expand throughout Indian Country.

All the other bills were approved except S.692, which was delayed in order to get more information.

After nearly a month break, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee returns to business today to consider a number of hills, including a critical measure to improve Indian health care.

The committee's last hearing, on Indian gaming, took place September 21. A number of planning meetings and hearings during the month of October were postponed amid the ongoing investigation into lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

The shifting schedule put off the committee's consideration of several high-profile bills. One is S.1057, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments of 2005, a measure that has been pending in Congress for more than two years due to objections from the Bush administration.

Pressed by tribal leaders, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the committee chairman, and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman, have pledged to break the logjam. They hope to move the bill out of committee and onto the floor by the end of the year.

The measure reauthorizes a number of key health care programs aimed at reducing health disparities afflicting American Indians and Alaska Natives. It also establishes behavioral health, health prevention and health promotion initiatives to address recent developments since the passage of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act back in 1976.

"Indian Country must have access to modern systems of health care," Rachel Joseph, the chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe of California, said in Senate testimony this past July.

Beyond health care, the committee is due to consider a number of other bills. One controversial measure is S.1003, the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Amendments of 2005, a bill that would end the government's relocation of Navajo and Hopi families.

The Office of Navajo and Hopi Indian Relocation has spent more than $483 million over 30 years to relocate families off lands that were the subject of a dispute between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. The bill seeks to end the program within the next few years, although representatives of the two tribes have voiced objections to certain provisions.

Also up for review today is S.1892, an Indian trust measure. The bill would give tribes more time to bring lawsuits against the United States for alleged losses to their trust fund accounts.

In the late 1990s, tribes were presented with reports by the former Arthur Anderson firm that purported to give an historical accounting of their trust funds. The reports, although criticized as incomplete, documented problems with the handling of tribal money, as the Bureau of Indian Affairs was unable to support billions of dollars worth of transactions.

Congress has already extended the deadline for tribes to file lawsuits based on the reports. The new measure would add six more years to the clock.

The two other bills on today's agenda are:
S.692, A bill to provide for the conveyance of certain public land in northwestern New Mexico by resolving a dispute associated with coal preference right lease interests on the land.
S.1219, A bill to authorize certain tribes in the State of Montana to enter into a lease or other temporary conveyance of water rights to meet the water needs of the Dry Prairie Rural Water Association, Inc.

Next week, on Wednesday, November 2, the committee holds its fourth hearing on the Abramoff lobbying scandal. The hearing will focus on the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, whose former leaders spent $32 million on Abramoff and public relations executive Michael Scanlon.

In advance of the hearing, the committee prepared subpoenas for three people, including an associate of Interior Secretary Gale Norton, the publication Roll Call reported. The committee previously issued subpoenas to lobbyists, lawyers and other people connected to the scandal, which has led to wide-ranging criminal investigations in Washington and at least one other state.

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee - http://indian.senate.gov