Senate Committee on Indian Affairs comes under new leadership

Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) is the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Photo: SCIA

Members of Congress got back to work this week and ushered in new leadership for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) will serve as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the committee during the 115th Congress. They pledged to work together to address economic, health, education and other issues in Indian Country.

“I am honored to serve as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and look forward to working with Vice Chairman Udall and members of the committee to pass legislation that helps improve the lives of people across Indian Country," Hoeven said in a press release on Thursday. "In our roles, we will address the issues of job creation, natural resource management, health care, education, public safety and housing in Indian communities. We will also make it a priority to promote economic growth. Jobs and economic growth are the priorities that will help Indian families, communities and businesses succeed.”

"With the Indian Affairs Committee’s proud tradition of bipartisan cooperation in mind, I am very much looking forward to working with Chairman Hoeven and all our committee members to help secure progress for Indian Country," said Udall.

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) is the new vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Photo: SCIA

"The U.S. Senate has a duty to support tribal communities in their work to build sustainable economies and good schools, provide quality health care, maintain access to clean air and water, and protect the deep Native American connection to culture and tradition," Udall added. "Native Americans have faced, and continue to face, great challenges and injustices – and while we have made progress, it is abundantly clear that we have much work to do to improve government-to-government consultation with tribes and to ensure environmental justice."

Hoeven and Udall have big shoes to fill. Under the leadership of Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the committee convened an impressive number of hearings, meetings and listening sessions, during the 114th Congress, which ended in December. The panel also passed a slew of bills, a number of which were signed into law,

“I look forward to working closely with them both, and with all the committee members, to pass legislation that will empower tribal communities and will strengthen the government-to-government relationship the United States shares with tribes," said Barrasso, the prior chair.

Tester, the prior vice chair, added: “I am confident that during this session of Congress the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will continue its long history of working across the aisle to promote tribal sovereignty and strengthen economic opportunities, health care and education for all Native American and Alaska Native families.”

While the leadership of the committee has changed, the membership is largely staying the same. On the Republican side, Hoeven and Barrasso are being joined by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas). The same eight Republicans served on the panel during the last session of Congress.

On the Democratic side, Udall and Tester are being joined by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota). All six Democrats served on the committee during the 114th Congress.

But in a sign of the slight shift in power in the Senate, Democrats are gaining another seat on the committee, for a total of seven. It will be taken by Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a new member of Congress from Nevada.

Republicans still hold the majority on the committee, which typically acts in a bipartisan fashion. There were a couple of instances in the 115th Congress where Democrats were outnumbered and were unable to stop controversial legislation from advancing although those bills never became law.

Overall, Republicans control 52 seats in the Senate while Democrats control 46. Two independents -- including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- align themselves with Democrats, bringing the party's total to 48.

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