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Senate committee renews focus with new vice chair

Business Meeting/Sen. Murkowski

Opening Statements
Note: Due to a technical glitch on the Senate's side, Sen. Dorgan and Sen. Murkowski were cut off. The audio comes back for parts of Sen. Tester's statement.

Panel 1 | Q&A

Panel 2 | Q&A
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee made history on Thursday with the selection of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) as its vice chair.

Murkowski said she was "honored" to take the post, though it came under somber circumstances. She replaces Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyoming), who died last month after a battle with cancer.

"He was not only a friend to us in the Senate, he was a friend to all those throughout Indian Country," Murkowski said in a tribute to her late colleague.

As the 11th vice chair of the committee, Murkowski's selection was landmark is more ways than one. "She is the first woman vice chair of this committee in all of its years," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chairman, to enthusiastic applause.

Murkowski pointed out that she's the first Alaskan to serve in the post. She noted that she was wearing a necklace from Dena'ina Tribe in Alaska, a gift normally reserved for chiefs.

"I'm honored to wear it before you as I accept this new role," she said at the committee's business meeting yesterday morning.

The appointment of the vice chair wasn't the only change for the committee. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) joined the panel as its newest member and, in another first, as its second physician. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) is the other doctor on the committee.

"As an orthopedic surgeon, I'm going to be looking at many things from the standpoint of health care," said Barrasso, who has patients on the Wind River Reservation in his state. He said the average life expectancy for Native Americans in Wyoming 49 years, far lower than the national average of about 78 years.

"I'm thinking we can do much better there," he said.

The comments on health were echoed by Murkowski. Murkowski issued a "challenge" to Dorgan and the other members of the committee to ensure passage of a long-stalled health care bill.

"I'm not one to make promises that we can't keep. I'm pretty pragmatic and a realist," she said. "It really is time to put the Indian Health Care Improvement Act on the president's desk for signature."

Dorgan met with Murkowski on Wednesday to go over shared concerns. "The priority is the Indian Health Care Improvement Act," he said.

The committee quickly approved the bill but it still needs approval from Senate Finance Committee. "We must get this moving. We must get this to the president's desk," said Dorgan. "I'm about out of patience."

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), who joined the committee in January, welcomed Murkowski's appointment and said he looked forward to working with her on the health care bill. "It's been long overdue," he said. "It's somewhat disturbing that it hadn't been passed before."

The committee's next hearing takes place Thursday, July 26, to consider the nomination of Dr. Charles W. Grim to be director of the Indian Health Service. Grim, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, was renominated by President Bush to the post.

Committee Notice:
BUSINESS MEETING to consider pending business, to be followed immediately by a HEARING on discussion draft legislation to amend and reauthorize the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act. (July 19, 2007)

Relevant Links:
Senate Indian Affairs Committee -