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Democrats promise action on tribal measures

Key Democratic lawmakers promised tribal leaders on Tuesday they would take action on bills critical to Indian Country, starting with the long-delayed Indian health care reauthorization.

Reps. George Miller of California, Frank Pallone of New Jersey and Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island said tribal issues were neglected under Republican rule. They complained that their colleagues across the aisle spent too much time in the 109th Congress focusing on controversies tied to the $23 billion Indian gaming industry.

"We believe that the issues in Indian Country are far broader than just Indian gaming," Miller told the United South and Eastern Tribes (USET). "There are many, many other issues that have to be addressed."

Now that Democrats control the House and Senate, the three lawmakers said they were poised to modernize Indian health care, implement tribal-appropriate changes to the education system and address mental health and substance abuse needs on reservations.

"With this new Democratic majority, we are determined we are going to try to make things different," said Pallone.

First on the agenda is the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. The law expired eight years ago but efforts to renew it have been met with opposition from the White House and Senate Republicans.

Pallone said his position as the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health gives him greater power to pass the bill. Republicans never advanced the measure when they controlled the committee and kept asking for extensions as time ran out last year.

The bill also will be referred to the Resources Committee, where Miller, Pallone, Kennedy and several other tribal advocates sit. The Ways and Means Committee, now chaired by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-New York), another strong advocate, gets a shot as well after Republicans let it languish there last year.

As for education, Miller chairs the key Education and Labor Committee. He said he will use his position to ensure Indian Country has "full participation" in the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I think we can see a number of things that can be improved, that can be changed, in terms of how we assess children, in terms of how we measure their proficiency and making sure they have the resources available to them," Miller said of public schools on or near reservations.

Kennedy, one of the co-founders of the Congressional Native American Caucus, expressed a more personal commitment. Citing his battles with depression and substance abuse, he said he would work to change the way mental health care is delivered.

"I am a suffering and recovering alcoholic," Kennedy told tribal leaders. He said he has been sober for nine months, following an incident last May in which he crashed his car into a security barricade near the U.S. Capitol.

Kennedy cited statistics which show American Indians and Alaska Natives suffer from alcoholism and substance abuse at rates higher than the general population. He said the health care system has failed to treat Native people and other sufferers properly, because it views their problem as a "moral failing" rather than a physical ailment.

Native Americans "have paid the dearest price for the scourge of this untreated illness," he said.

Buford Rolin, the chairman of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians of Alabama, said Congress is already moving quickly on the Indian Health Care Improvement Act. He co-chairs the national steering committee for reauthorization of the law.

But he noted that Republicans continue to voice opposition to the measure. He said they are now characterizing the health care system for Native Americans as "race based" and somehow unconstitutional.

"It's these [Republican] senators who do not feel like Indian people should have any priorities over any other race," Rolin said. "Of course we disagree with that -- there are treaties and other obligations as far as health care for Indian people."

USET's "Impact Week" conference began Monday and runs through Thursday. Tribal leaders from Maine to Florida are meeting in the Washington, D.C., area to discuss a wide range of issues and to hear from members of Congress and Bush administration officials.

Relevant Links:
United South and Eastern Tribes -
National Indian Health Board -
Indian Health Service -