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Cobell Lawsuit & Settlement
Cobell settlement bill pulled from Senate consideration


Update: At the business meeting this morning, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) decided to pull the bill after he and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota) met with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday. He said Kempthorne and Gonzales pledged to work with the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to resolve the Cobell case. He said the committee will work over the August recess with the administration, the Cobell plaintiffs and Indian Country to draft a bill that would provide a comprehensive settlement to Indian trust claims.

An attorney for the Cobell trust fund lawsuit feared a $8 billion settlement to the case was "dead" after Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) pulled the bill from consideration on Tuesday.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which McCain chairs, was due to take up S.1439, the Indian Trust Reform Act, at a business meeting this morning. But it was abruptly removed from the agenda yesterday afternoon.

Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said the delay -- the second in the last two weeks -- has effectively put an end to efforts to settle the 10-year-old case. Lawmakers are about to go on a one-month break later this week and will be consumed by the upcoming elections and other urgent matters once they return.

"There's no time left in the legislative calendar," Harper said in an interview. "The bill, from our end, is dead."

McCain had told the Cobell plaintiffs and the Bush administration last month that his trust reform package would resolve the case for $8 billion. A provision in the bill was expected to allow individual Indians to continue to pursue their claims if they desire.

But lukewarm reception from the Bush administration prompted McCain to step back, Harper and two other Capitol Hill sources said. "It's the administration that has the problem with it, it's not the plaintiffs," said one Washington, D.C., lawyer.

Harper said it was a mistake for McCain to wait for any sort of response from the Interior Department "If the administration's sign off is a necessary precondition for the committee to go forward on the bill," he said, "then we're going to be waiting a long time."

New Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has told tribal leaders across the nation that he wanted to settle. But senior officials, many of whom have remained on board even after the departure of former secretary Gale Norton, have openly balked at a large dollar figure for the case.

The officials include Jim Cason, the associate deputy secretary; David Bernhardt, the deputy solicitor; and Ross Swimmer, the Special Trustee for American Indians. In Congressional testimony and public statements, officials have said Indian beneficiaries are owed a very small amount, possibly in the low millions.

McCain had indicated he was going to go forward whether or not the Cobell plaintiffs of Interior agreed. When he took over the Senate committee in early 2005, he pledged to give the issue "one good shot."

"If it looks like we're not getting anywhere," he said back in March 2005, "then I will leave that task to future Congresses and the courts."

It's not clear why McCain may have changed his mind. But he will address the delay when the committee meets this morning, The Arizona Republic reported.

Another bill to recognize six Virginia tribes was also taken off the agenda. Three other measures, including one to recognize the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, will be considered as originally scheduled.

McCain is stepping down as chairman of the committee at the end of the year. He has drawn some criticism for focusing most of his energies on the Jack Abramoff scandal and Indian gaming. About half of the hearings he called focused or were related to those topics.

Business Meeting Notice:
Pending committee issues (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