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Lame-duck session provides window for Indian health

Update: The joint hearing has been postponed. The committee will announce a new date.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee is making one final push to reauthorize the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.

With Congress back in Washington for a lame-duck session, there are only a few legislative days left to finish business. Lawmakers are putting a priority on must-pass bills like appropriations for the federal agencies.

The time crunch prompted the committee to schedule a rare post-election joint hearing on Tuesday. Along with the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, lawmakers will consider the most recent proposal for S.1057 that was made public on Friday.

The manager's amendments seek to resolve years of bottlenecks that have tied up passage. Most of the delays have come from the White House and the Bush administration, whose officials repeatedly objected to provisions of the bill even as they pledged to support it.

The latest salvo came in September when the bill was "hotlined" for passage in the Senate. But instead of celebrating, tribal leaders were dismayed to learn that members of the Republican Steering Committee placed holds on the bill, citing an 11th-hour document from the Department of Justice.

The "last minute ambush" was decried by Rachel Joseph, the chairwoman of the Lone Paiute Shoshone Tribe of California and the head of the steering committee that has been working on the bill for several years. She and other tribal leaders blasted a White House official at the recent National Congress of American Indians conference.

The National Indian Health Board has since prepared responses to the DOJ "white paper" in hopes of overcoming the objections. The organization asked President Bush and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to withdraw the document.

"It is time for the federal government to honor its responsibility and uphold the government-to-government relationship with Indian tribes founded on the U.S. Constitution, treaty rights, and other federal law," NIHB Chair H. Sally Smith wrote.

At NCAI last month, former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe of Montana, called passage of the bill "a matter of life and death for many of our people."

He noted that he chaired several hearings on the bill in the 108th and 109th Congress. He said the Bush administration kept coming back to the committee with piecemeal objections.

"I get the feeling the same thing has been happening again," he said at NCAI.

The political landscape, however, has changed since Congress went on break. Democrats now control the House and the Senate, making the objections from the Republicans less powerful, although a hold by a single senator can still prevent passage of the bill.

Before the election, the NIHB had met with Sen. Pete Sessions (R-Alabama), whose hold blocked the bill in September, and staff from the Republican Steering Committee. "There is still a strong possibility that if the issues and concerns identified by the RSC and the DOJ are resolved and the holds are lifted, then S. 1057 could be passed by unanimous consent," the organization said in a pre-election update.

SCIA Release:

Indian Health Care Improvement Act:
Manager's Amendments | S.1057 [As Introduced]

Relevant Documents:
Letter to Bush | Letter to Alberto Gonzales | DOJ White Paper

Relevant Links:
National Indian Health Board -
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee -