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White House blamed for another delay in Cobell
Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Efforts to settle the Cobell trust fund lawsuit are in danger because the White House has failed to provide a settlement number, a top senator said on Monday.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee presented an $8 billion figure to the Bush administration more than two months ago. Despite a commitment to resolve the case, officials have not responded to the offer, said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota).

"We're just not there yet," said Dorgan, the vice chairman of the committee, told tribal leaders via videotape at the National Congress of American Indians conference in Sacramento. "The administration has not been very forthcoming."

Dorgan said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales have been very "helpful" to the committee. The delay in the settlement comes from elsewhere in the administration, he said.

"It's the White House and the Office of Management and Budget that have not given us a number," Dorgan elaborated.

Kempthorne, in a speech delivered prior to Dorgan's videotape message, told NCAI he was committed to resolving the 10-year-old case. But when asked by Bill Martin, a Tlingit-Haida council member, to explain his position on the settlement bill, he deferred to Carl Artman, President Bush's nominee to head the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Artman cited "ongoing discussions with this bill" but did not state the Interior Department's position. His response to the question appeared to place most of the responsibility on Congress, not the administration.

"Hopefully, when they get back to Congress after the elections, they can get to that," Artman said of the legislation.

Later in the afternoon, two key Senate aides confirmed Dorgan's assessment of the situation. David Mullon, the general counsel and policy director for the Republicans on the committee, said he had planned to come to NCAI with a firm settlement figure.

"I cannot tell you that," he said. "We have not heard from the administration with a number. We do not have a proposal back from the administration."

Allison Binney, the general counsel for the Democrats on the committee, was more downbeat. "The situation is dire," she told tribal leaders.

Mullon and Binney believe some of the delay comes from the many agencies involved in the settlement. In addition to Interior, the Treasury Department, the Department of Justice, the White House, the White House OMB and the White House Domestic Policy Council have a stake in the outcome.

"It's hard for them to get on the same page," Binney said.

But with Congress out of session until November, the aides said time is running out for resolution this year. The Senate and the House are scheduled to return for just one week following the elections.

Keith Harper, one of the attorneys for the Cobell plaintiffs, wasn't surprised by the latest delay. He pointed out that the settlement bill was introduced more than a year ago, giving the administration more than enough time to come up with a response.

"This is their modus operandi," he said at the conference. "This is how they behave."

Tribal leaders attending NCAI plan to press the issue further when Ruben Barrales, the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, shows up on Wednesday.

Senate Confirmation Hearing:
Webcast | Carl Artman Testimony

Relevant Documents:
Staff Draft of Cobell Settlement Bill (Posted by ITMA)

Senate Indian Affairs Committee Statement:
INDIAN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE POSTPONES CONSIDERATION OF TRUST REFORM LEGISLATION (August 2, 2006)

Indian Trust Reform Act:
S.1439 | H.R.4322

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee - http://indian.senate.gov
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Kempthorne - http://www.indiantrust.com
Office of Special Trustee - http://www.ost.doi.gov
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm

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