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Rahall outlines Indian agenda for 110th Congress

Citing years of neglect under Republican rule, the new Democratic chairman of the House Resources Committee said he would put tribal legislation on the fast track in the 110th Congress.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia) held a press conference on Capitol Hill on Friday to outline his agenda for the next two years. The Indian Health Care Improvement Act, sacred sites and royalty collection at the Interior Department were among his top concerns.

"We are going to place a very high priority on moving whatever comes within our jurisdiction that could help address many of the problems that exist in Indian Country," Rahall said. "That is going to be put at the very top of the agenda."

Off the radar screen, or at least Rahall's, are efforts to restrict off-reservation gaming. Richard Pombo (R-California), the former chairman of the committee who was voted out of office, had held several hearings on the hot-button topic before unsuccessfully trying to push a bill through before the election.

Rahall, who has served on the committee for his entire 30-year career in the House, said he would rather work on "a whole gamut of Indian issues that have been neglected for too long." But if something controversial like gaming comes up, he pledged to work with tribes.

"It will be done in consultation with Indian Country, I guarantee," he said.

Also missing from the agenda is legislation to settle the Cobell trust fund lawsuit. Rahall, along with Pombo and leaders from the Senate, had sponsored s a bill to resolve the case for $8 billion before it was held up by the White House.

But Rahall said he would examine a closely-related matter. News reports and government investigations have raised questions about Interior's collection of royalties for drilling on federal and Indian lands.

Oil and gas companies have reported a record increase in profits but oversight of their leases has dropped significantly since the start of the Bush administration, which has encouraged more drilling. One Congressional study put the loss to American taxpayers as high as $60 billion.

Rahall vowed to end "royalty holidays" and address "royalty underpayments" as chairman of the committee. "There's a lot of questions that have not been asked of this Interior Department for six years and we're going to ask those questions," he said.

In other areas, Rahall said he would work to "immediately" pass the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The bill, first passed in 1976, expired in 2000 but efforts to reauthorize it have failed for the past six years.

Rahall blamed the holdup on Republicans, a view supported by others inside and outside of Congress, including former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado). The White House and Republican Senators have objected to the bill numerous times, with the most recent delay coming before the election.

Rahall also said he would revisit sacred sites, an issue he tried to push early in the Bush administration. He called on Congress to pass a "comprehensive law" that would give tribes more power to protect their most important places.

Although Democrats now control the House and the Senate, Rahall said he would continue to work in a bipartisan fashion. He said he had a good relationship with Pombo and looked forward to sitting next to Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska), who will be the top Republican on the panel.

"I've heard him rant and rave," Rahall joked, referring to Young's frequently documented outbursts at committee hearings.

Tex Hall, the chairman of the Inter-Tribal Economic Alliance and former president of the National Congress of American Indians, welcomed Rahall's leadership. "This is a big win for all tribes and we look forward to working with him as chairman to advance a bold and progressive agenda for all of Indian Country," Hall said.

Relevant Links:
Rep. Nick Rahall -
House Resources Committee -