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Democrats pass Native Hawaiian bill on second try
Thursday, March 29, 2007
Filed Under: Law | Politics

Democrats in the House secured passage of a Native Hawaiian housing bill on Wednesday, defeating a Republican effort to block the measure as unconstitutional.

The 272 to 150 tally broke down along party lines. All 227 Democrats present voted in favor of H.R.835, the Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act, a bill to reauthorize Native Hawaiian housing programs.

In contrast, all the no votes came from Republicans. Only 50 GOP lawmakers joined Democrats in supporting the measure, which was sponsored by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii).

"Please don't punish people that are trying to own their own homes, to keep their own homes, because of some ideological difference that we might have," Abercrombie said yesterday afternoon.

Abercrombie decried the partisan response to the bill, noting that another Native Hawaiian housing bill was supported by Republicans in the 109th Congress. Even Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Alabama) signed on as a sponsor of that measure but he came out in opposition to H.R.835.

Bachus argued that the bill violates the U.S. Constitution by singling out Native Hawaiians for benefits based solely on their race. "So this disturbs many of my colleagues on my side of the aisle," he said on Tuesday night.

Bachus and other Republicans were able to raise enough doubts about the bill that it failed to pass when it came up for consideration last week. On March 21, Abercrombie brought the bill up under "suspension" of the rules.

The move required Abercrombie to secure two-thirds of the House vote to pass the bill. The 262 to 162 tally wasn't enough to clear the rules.

In that roll call, only 34 Republicans backed H.R.835. But yesterday, Abercrombie and Democrats picked up 16 Republican votes and were able pass the measure by a simple majority.

"This is not a bill about Native Hawaiian sovereignty," said Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Arizona) yesterday afternoon. "It does not confer any special rights to the Native Hawaiians, nor does the bill suggest that Native Hawaiians should be given a status equal to that of Native Americans."

The bill has not been considered in the Senate, where it faces hurdles from Republicans who successfully blocked a Native Hawaiian sovereignty bill last year by raising the same constitutional issues. Their efforts have been supported by the Department of Justice, whose political appointees have argued against "race-based" legislation.

Native Hawaiians are a target because they are not considered to be in the same legal category as American Indians and Alaska Natives. But the GOP campaign also threatens tribes in the 48 states and Alaska, with debate over reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act highlighting attempts to restrict services to urban Indians and certain Alaska Natives.

"Under the Supreme Court's decisions, there is a substantial likelihood that legislation providing special benefits to individuals of Indian or Alaska Native descent based on something other than membership or equivalent affiliation with a federally recognized tribe would be regarded by the courts as a racial classification," Frederick Breckner III, a deputy assistant general at DOJ, told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee at a March 8 hearing.

The committee will consider S.710, the Senate version of the bill. It was introduced by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), a member of the committee.

Get the Bill:
H.R.835: Hawaiian Homeownership Opportunity Act of 2007 | House Report 110-050

Roll Calls:
On Passage (March 28, 2007) | On Motion to Suspend the Rules and Pass (March 21, 2007)

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