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On Indian issues, Senate gets a sense of itself

After a lengthy Vote-a-Rama that forced the cancellation of an anticipated Indian gaming hearing, the Senate on Wednesday passed a $2.2 trillion budget for the next fiscal year.

The 56 to 44 vote was largely along party lines, with only six Democrats supporting the resolution. It came a day after Republicans failed to stop Democrats from cutting President Bush's $726 billion tax breaks in half.

That wasn't the only partisan rally. On Tuesday, all Republicans voted against a measure that would have doubled funds for the Indian Health Service (IHS). Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) wanted to add $2.9 billion to the agency.

"Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have a guarantee under law and treaty that we provide health benefits to them and to their families," Daschle said on the floor on Tuesday. "They are not getting it today."

But 47 Democrats and one independent couldn't get the amendment passed. Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said it was just "too great" to bear. "I understand there are a lot of problems in Indian Health Service," he observed. "We have some of those in my State as well. It doesn't solve it by saying we should have an 86 percent increase in growth in this function."

In came a replacement that offered a "sense" of the Senate about the "importance of Native American health." To wit: Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), members of the Senate Senate Indian Affairs Committee, offered to raise the IHS budget to $3.208 million.

"In addition, it includes a sense of the Senate that Congress recognizes the need for prevention and research for a major disease in the Native American community, which is diabetes," Campbell said.

The amendment passed by a voice vote.

The Senate knocked some more sense into itself with some language regarding tribal colleges. Apparently, the Budget Committee concluded, the Bush administration isn't committed to post-secondary education.

"While Congress has been increasing the annual appropriations for tribal colleges in recent years, the President's fiscal year 2004 budget recommends a $4,000,000 decrease in institutional operating funds," the budget resolution states. "The combination of annual increases in enrollments, reduced federal funding, and the addition of two new tribal colleges would result in a devastating decrease in funding of $540 per student below the fiscal year 2003 estimate."

In total, there were 171 amendments to S.Con.Res.23. Most of the votes took place yesterday and the day before. The busy schedule kept the Indian Affairs Committee from calling a couple of witnesses to testify about regulation of the $12 billion Indian gaming industry. A new hearing is planned.

Then there is the issue of the House, which lacked sense on Native American health and Tribal Colleges and Universities and didn't touch President Bush's tax cut. Lawmakers will have to resolve the funding and tax differences soon.

Relevant Documents:
Budget Resolution: S.Con.Res.23

Related Stories:
GOP rejects IHS funding measure (3/26)
Senate panel cancels Indian gaming hearing (3/26)
Budget measure would double IHS funds (3/25)

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