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White House hit over delays in health care and Cobell
Thursday, October 5, 2006

A senior White House official sought to explain the Bush administration's stance on Indian health care and the Cobell settlement amid angry questions on Wednesday.

Attendees of the National Congress of American Indians annual conference in Sacramento criticized the administration for its last minute objections to the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The bill was cleared for passage in the Senate until the Department of Justice, on the eve of consideration, sent a memo that was used by some Republicans to delay action.

"What will the White House do to help us deal with this last minute ambush?" asked Rachel Joseph, the chairwoman of the Lone Paiute Shoshone Tribe of California and the head of the steering committee that has been working on the bill for several years.

Ruben Barrales, the target of the remark, didn't have much of a response. He indicated that the DOJ memo was as much a surprise to him as it was to Indian Country.

"All I can tell you is I have the same question," said Barrales, the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

Linda Holt, the chairwoman of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board and a council member for the Suquamish Tribe of Washington, said administration officials have been given numerous opportunities to provide comments on the measure. She called the DOJ salvo an affront to the federal-tribal relations.

"They've never done that and then at the last minute they turn around and say, 'We have these objections,' and the bill is pulled," Holt said. "That is not true government-to-government relations."

Barrales defended the administration's handling of the overall talks. "I do have to disagree with you," he said. "We were working in good faith on the issues."

But when he appeared to downplay President Bush's role by noting that the his boss has only been in office for five years while the bill expired 13 years ago, former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) took the floor. As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee during the time in question, he laid the blame at the administration's feet.

Campbell said former HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, a Bush appointee, repeatedly told him the administration supported reauthorization. But he said officials kept coming back with piecemeal changes that delayed action for years.

"I get the feeling the same thing has been happening again," said Campbell, who called the reauthorization "a matter of life and death for many of our people."

In addition to facing fire on health, Barrales acknowledged the White House was behind the delay in the Cobell case. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the current vice chairman of the committee, told NCAI on Monday that the administration has failed to provide a response to the $8 billion settlement proposal.

"That is absolutely true and we are conscious of that," Barrales said.

But he said the settlement is "more than a number." Although he didn't delve into specifics, he indicated trust management going forward was a key concern of the administration, whose officials have called for a bill that addresses land consolidation and other issues.

"I think everyone understands that the federal government has not done a good job in terms of its trust responsibility," he admitted. "It's all related," he said of trust management issues. "It's related to the number itself."

Like the Indian health care bill, however, the settlement legislation has been on the table for more than a year. On the day before the Senate committee was going to clear the bill for a floor vote, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asked for more time.

"There is one recalcitrant entity here and its' the administration," said Keith Harper, an attorney for the Cobell plaintiffs who spoke to NCAI on Monday.

As he has done at past conferences, Barrales repeated his pledge to keep an open door for tribal people. He hailed the creation of an "Indian Country Working Group," composed of federal agencies with involvement in Indian issues, that meets once a month at the White House.

He said the administration is working to develop an "Indian Country 101" course for federal employees and appointees to educate them on sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship.

But Campbell, in his remarks during the question-and-answer session, said more action is needed.

"The message now from Indian Country is we're not going to take it anymore," said Campbell, who now works as a lobbyist. "Indian Country is alive, well and active, and we vote."

Health Care Bill:
Indian Health Care Improvement Act Amendments (S.1057)

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

Relevant Links:
National Congress of American Indians - http://www.ncai.org

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