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Republicans get behind Donald Trump as new challenges emerge for tribes





Students at Santa Fe Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution in New Mexico whose funds are controlled by the federal government. Photo from SFIS

Top Republican lawmakers, some of whom had abandoned Donald Trump in the weeks before the presidential election, are quickly lining up behind their party leader as a new era of challenges emerges for Indian Country.

The first major hurdle involves the federal budget. After conversations with Trump this week, GOP leaders agreed to hold off on advancing any appropriations bills for Indian Country and other national programs.

Instead, they intend to move forward with what's known as a continuing resolution. That means funding levels are likely to remain stagnant at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service since Congress never approved a spending bill for those agencies or, for that matter, most of the rest of the federal government.

Tribes will now have to wait until Trump comes on board next year to find out what Republicans have in store for Indian programs. President Barack Obama released his very first proposal in February 2009 while then-president George W. Bush got his initial budget out in April 2001.


C-SPAN: Representative Tom Cole on the House Republican Agenda

"We want to hit the ground running in January, and start delivering on President-elect Trump's agenda," Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the Speaker of the House, said on Friday. Barely a month ago, Ryan had said he wasn't going to defend or campaign with his party's candidate.

Still, not everyone in Republican circles agrees with the new approach. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation and one of just two members of a federally recognized tribe in Congress, said putting off the budget is a mistake.

"I am very concerned," Cole said on the C-SPAN's Washington Journal on Friday. "This is one where I was on the losing side of the debate, to be honest. I believe very much we could and should finish up all of our work and provide stability for the incoming administration so it could write the budget for the following year."

Another big challenge comes as Trump starts filling out his leadership team and tribes figure out where they stand. On Friday, he announced Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) as his pick to run the Department of Justice.


Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama), left, endorsed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on February 28, 2016, and is the president-elect's choice as the Attorney General of the United States. Photo from Facebook

“Jeff has been a highly respected member of the U.S. Senate for 20 years," the president-elect said in a press release. "He is a world-class legal mind and considered a truly great Attorney General and U.S. Attorney in the state of Alabama. Jeff is greatly admired by legal scholars and virtually everyone who knows him.”

Sessions does not have much experience in Indian issues, partly because Alabama is home to just one federally recognized tribe, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. But that didn't stop him from holding up critical pieces of Indian legislation during the Bush years.

At the time, the National Congress of American Indians, a non-partisan organization, took the unusual step of calling out Sessions and other Republicans for "obstructionism." The message wasn't heeded -- it took three more years for the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to become law and even that achievement is on the chopping block with the GOP in control in Washington, D.C.

And just like with their legislative agenda, Republican leaders are quickly rallying to Trump's side as he names his Cabinet. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), the majority leader in the Senate said he was looking forward to confirming Sessions as the next Attorney General. Just last month, McConnell was refusing to talk about Trump's controversial campaign.

The arrival of Sessions signals major change in the Indian legal agenda. During the Obama administration, the Department of Justice helped settle more than 100 tribal trust fund lawsuits for more than $3.3 billion. The Cobell lawsuit affecting individual Indians was settlement for $3.4 billion.

The department also took a greater role in addressing violence against Native women and girls, advancing Indian voting rights, ensuring compliance with the Indian Child Welfare Act, defending tribal treaty rights, safeguarding tribal water rights and protecting tribes from state and local taxation. Those initiatives took active efforts by the leadership at Justice and were the result of tribes repeatedly pressing the Obama administration to live up to the federal government's obligations to the first Americans.

The 115th Congress convenes in early January 2017 and both the House and the Senate will remain under Republican control. Trump's inauguration takes place on January 20, 2017, and it will mark the first time since 2007 that the party has been in charge of both the legislative and executive branches.

"Our unified GOP government is taking the frustrations we’re hearing from people and working to change the status quo," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington), who defeated Democrat Joe Pakootas, a member of the Colville Tribes, at the polls on November 8. She will return to her position as chair of the Republican Conference in the House.

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