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Debate on trust fund rider tests Republicans in House
Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Indian leaders and their advocates in Congress are gearing for a showdown on a $20 billion appropriations bill that delays a court-ordered accounting of the Indian trust.

The House is scheduled to take up the measure starting today amid controversy over the provision, which puts off by one year the accounting at least $13 billion in Indian funds. It was added against the objections of Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues.

"It removes any incentive for the Department of the Interior to go forward with an accounting or settlement while Native Americans will wait years more for their monies," he wrote in a letter on Monday to the House Appropriations Committee in reference to language limiting the rights of Indian account holders.

But Pombo's political alliances, along with those of others, will be tested as Republicans seek final passage of the massive package. It contains money highly sensitive to several Western states, including $3 billion for firefighting in California, which has suffered from deadly blazes in recent days, and Arizona, where Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R), a long-time friend of Indian Country, and Rick Renzi (R), a newer one, are being forced to make some difficult choices in the days ahead.

"You don't need to burn Indians to fight fires," said Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund (NARF) attorney who is handling the Cobell v. Norton lawsuit and is one of several advocates working to defeat the measure.

Already, the alliance has suffered a setback. Last night, the House Rules Committee, which sets the process by which bills move forward, adopted a rule that makes it nearly impossible to remove the rider from the bill.

The rule could be rejected as early as this morning. But it is expected to clear the chamber because lawmakers almost always go with their party on rules. That means Pombo, Hayworth and other Republicans who oppose the rider will be effectively voting to keep it in.

The campaign won't end there, though. Congressional staff fighting the rider are urging Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) to raise an objection to the bill. As the raking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, he has the prerogative to send it back for further discussions.

But this tactic, called a motion to recommit, has to be approved by the full chamber. Republican staff members of the Appropriations Committee believe they have enough votes to defeat the recommit motion even if Pombo and others defect, two sources close to the process said yesterday.

If the appropriators survive this challenge, they still need to clear the bill for final passage. Pombo is said to be considering voting against the bill. Several Democrats, including Obey, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the House Resources Committee, and Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Native American Caucus, have indicated they would vote no as well.

Hayworth, however, is said to be torn on the issue. As the other co-chair of the Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of 96 lawmakers in the House, he and Kildee would normally speak with one voice. Last year, the pair led the charge against another anti-Indian trust rider, and secured a landmark 281 to 144 vote against it.

This past Friday, Hayworth and Kildee expressed strong opposition to new riders. But that was before the critical firefighting funds were added to the bill Monday night, making it harder for Hayworth to vote against it.

The debate is also complicated by the fact that most members of Congress only received the full bill yesterday. Some are still poring over the details, putting pressure on Indian Country advocates to get the message out on the trust fund rider with the clock ticking away.

Besides the plaintiffs in the case and the Native American Rights Fund, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) is lobbying against the measure. NCAI President Tex Hall said it was added to the bill without consulting tribes or the lawmakers with jurisdiction.

"This legislative rider poisons an appropriations bill that contains very important appropriations for wildfires in the western U.S., critical funding increases for Indian schools, health, and other key needs, and other programs vastly important to tribes and to the U.S. at large," Hall said. "The bill should be recommitted to the [joint Senate-House] conference committee to remove this destructive rider."

The House returns to session this morning. The Interior bill is expected to come up at 11 a.m.

Meanwhile, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is holding a hearing this morning on a bill to settle the case by setting up a new bureaucracy to determine balances in Indian trust fund accounts.

DOI Budget Bills:
H.R.2691 | H.Rept.108-195 | S.1391 | S.Rept.108-89

Relevant Bills:
Campbell: Indian Money Account Claim Satisfaction Act of 2003 (S.1770) | Daschle: Indian Trust Payment Equity Act of 2003 (S.1540)

Congressional Native American Caucus Letter:
J.D. Hayworth/Dale Kildee (October 17, 2003)

Court Decisions:
Historical Accounting | Fixing the System | Structural Injunction

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Cobell rallies support for trust fund case (10/28)
DOI bill halts Indian trust fund case (10/24)
Bill targets Indian trust fund suit (10/22)
House chairman supports self-governance rider (10/14)
Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization (10/09)
Lamberth lays out future of Indian trust reform (09/26)
Court report finds undervaluation of Navajo lands (08/21)
Administration eyes consolidation of Indian appraisals (08/15)
Tally for private attorney fees in Cobell case rises (07/24)
Congress hacks Bush's accounting funds (7/16)
Swimmer partly right on trust fund rider (7/14)
Bush official balks at large settlement for Cobell (7/10)
On trust, lawmakers take Bush officials at face value (06/25)
Private attorneys reap benefits on Cobell case (06/24)
Norton offered settlement funds for IIM trust (6/20)
Lamberth criticizes interference with trust fund case (05/22)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)

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