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National races affect Indian affairs in Washington

Indian Country woke up to a major shift in power as Democrats reclaimed control of the House and inched towards a majority in the Senate on Tuesday.

Democrats picked up 27 seats, more than enough to win the House for the first time since 1994. They won four seats in the Senate and awaited the outcome of two close races they need to take that chamber.

In Montana, Democrat Jon Tester is declaring victory over Sen. Conrad Burns (R), a move that puts the Democrats one seat closer to winning the Congress.

The changes bring a big shakeup to the committees with jurisdiction over tribal matters. Some of Indian Country's most friendliest faces will no longer be in Washington.

In one of the biggest upsets, Rep. Richard Pombo (R-California) lost his bid for an eighth term. As chairman of the House Resources Committee, he advocated for tribal sovereignty, trust fund accountability and federal recognition, although he stumbled this fall in his bid to restrict off-reservation gaming.

The defeat puts Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia) in line to chair the committee. He is known as a strong advocate on sacred sites, trust reform and other Indian issues, although he has criticized efforts to shield tribes from federal labor laws.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Arizona), the co-chairman of the Congressional Native American Caucus, was the casualty of another upset. During his 12 years in Congress, he stood with tribes on nearly every single issue and piece of legislation, even if it meant breaking with his party.

A third loss came for Rep. Charles Taylor (R-North Carolina), whose district includes the Eastern Cherokee Reservation. As chairman of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, he reversed the Bush administration's Indian funding cuts but also allowed riders that undermined the trust relationship and the Cobell trust fund lawsuit.

Moving to the Senate, both parties have their eyes on Burns, whose loss to Tester widened this morning. Burns chairs the Senate Interior Appropriations subcommittee, which also reversed Bush's Indian cuts, but he came under fire for his close ties to convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Democrats need Tester to win and they need Democrat Jim Webb to defeat Sen. George Allen (R-Virginia) to reclaim the Senate. If that happens, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), a tribal ally, is in line to chair the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

The panel was already due for some changes because Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), will step down as chairman at the end of the year. The next Republican in line is Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), who has not distinguished himself one way or the other on Indian issues.

Elsewhere, Democratic control would put Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), another friendly face, in charge of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Other races to watch include the matchup between Rep. Heather Wilson (R-New Mexico) and Democrat Patricia Madrid in a district with at least 14,000 Native voters in Albuquerque and some reservations near Albuquerque. The tally was too close to call, although Wilson leads in the count.

Election Results:
Key Senate Races | Key House Races