Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), seen here in Washington, D.C., on December 11, 2019, discussing the impact of the relocation of Bureau of Land Management employees on Indian Country, plans to vote in favor of impeaching Donald Trump as president of the United States. Photo courtesy House Committee on Natural Resources Democrats

More Indian Country bills advance on Capitol Hill amid impeachment drama

With Democrats prepared to impeach President Donald Trump, lawmakers continue to advance legislation to benefit Indian Country's interests.

Three pro-tribal bills are slated for passage in the U.S. House of Representatives on Monday afternoon, according to the Majority Leader's calendar. All are being considered under a suspension of the rules, a sign of their non-controversial nature in an otherwise politically-divided climate in the nation's capital.

The bipartisan cooperation stands in contrast to a different kind of action that's scheduled to take place this week. The Democratic-controlled chamber plans to vote on impeaching Trump for "high crimes and misdemeanors" for soliciting the help of a foreign nation in connection with the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

And as expected, the four Native lawmakers who serve in the U.S. Congress are split along party lines when it comes to removing Trump from office. Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, plans to vote in favor of H.Res.755 when it comes to the floor of the House.

“No president should be able to use his power for personal political gain, but it’s clear that President Trump not only abused the power of his office for his own political gain, he also obstructed Congress, endangered our national security, and undermined our elections," Haaland said in a statement last Tuesday. "It’s worse than Watergate – we owe it to the American people and to our democracy to hold this president accountable."

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), a citizen of the Ho-Chunk Nation who made history with Haaland as the first two Native women to win election to Congress, plans to vote for impeachment too. She said the "evidence uncovered by the House impeachment inquiry is overwhelming. And the facts are uncontested."

"President Trump used the office of the Presidency to solicit foreign interference in our elections for his own personal, political benefit," Davids said in a December 10 statement that highlighted other "bipartisan" efforts on Capitol Hill. "He pressured Ukraine’s President to investigate his political rival, while withholding millions in taxpayer-funded aide to Ukraine. And since this information came to light, President Trump has defied congressional subpoenas, withholding critical documents and testimony. "

On the other side of the aisle are the Native Republican lawmakers. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who is the highest-ranking GOP member on the House committee that will determine how the impeachment resolution moves forward, said his Democratic colleagues were wrong about their chamber's investigation into Trump's dealings with Ukraine.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma) on YouTube: 'The good, the bad and the ugly' - Weekly Chat - December 12, 2019

"After weeks of impeachment hearings, the truth is that Democrats have failed to prove their case or convince the American people that the wasted time was worth it," Cole, who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, said in a statement. "There are no grounds here to impeach the president, and I will be voting accordingly.”

Haaland and Cole are otherwise aligned on Indian Country's interests. They serve as the Democratic and Republican co-chairs, respectively, of the Congressional Native American Caucus, a group of lawmakers that works in a bipartisan fashion to advance tribal legislation.

But like his Republican counterpart, Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is also firmly in Trump's corner. In two statements about the impeachment proceedings, he's accused Democrats of failing to make their case ahead of the 2020 election.

“First, they claimed it was collusion, then quid pro quo, then extortion, then bribery and now abuse of power and obstruction of Congress," Mullin said on Friday of the Democratic inquiry. "Despite their efforts to find a crime, one fact remains the same: President Trump has not committed a single impeachable offense."

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma) on YouTube: 'Smoke and mirrors' - Weekly Wrap Up: December 9-12, 2019

Just last week, the four Native lawmakers were united as the House passed its first stand-alone Indian bill of the 116th Congress, which began in January. On the same day the impeachment articles were made public, Democrats and Republicans alike beamed as they spoke in favor of S.256, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Programs Reauthorization Act, which provides $13 million a year for Native language initiatives.

"We are not here in this body to reauthorize feel-good programs. We are gathered here tonight not to reauthorize a feel-good program but to authorize a program that works, that makes a difference," Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-South Dakota), who is a new member of Congress, said during debate on the measure.

S.256, which cleared the House on December 10 after winning approval in the U.S. Senate on 27, has yet to be presented to Trump for his signature. But supporters expect him to sign the measure into law when it does, and they are looking to him to do the same with the bills coming up later on Monday.

Of the three on the schedule, two already passed the Senate, which is in Republican hands, so they are almost over the finish line. S.216, the Spokane Tribe of Indians of the Spokane Reservation Equitable Compensation Act, is one of them.

The bill compensates the Spokane Tribe for the loss of its lands to the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state. The measure enjoys strong bipartisan support.

“For over 60 years, the Spokane Tribe has worked to get just and equitable compensation for the use of thousands of acres of tribal lands,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), the sponsor of S.216, which passed her chamber on June 27, the same day as the Native languages bill. She noted that she has been working on the effort for 18 years, reaching back to her arrival in Washington, D.C., in 2001.

“The Grand Coulee Dam brought great benefits to our region in the form of clean, renewable, and affordable energy," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Washington), who up until this year was one of the highest-ranking Republicans in the House of Representatives. "Unfortunately, as a result, Eastern Washington tribes lost land, burial sites, access to rivers, and historic trading routes."

"In return, the Spokane tribe was offered an extremely low level of compensation for these losses," added McMorris Rodgers. "This legislation will ensure that we right this historical wrong and that the tribe receives equitable compensation for the negative impact on their land and culture. This is long overdue."

Another bill that's about to clear its final hurdle on Capitol Hill also comes from the Pacific Northwest and it too is supported by Democrats and Republicans. S.50, the Columbia River In-Lieu and Treaty Fishing Access Sites Improvement Act, fulfills a promise made in tribal treaties to maintain fishing sites and villages along the Columbia River in Washington and Oregon.

"These sites, which are federally controlled, were set aside by Congress to provide fishing access to tribal fishermen whose traditional fishing grounds were displaced after the construction of dams on the Columbia River," said Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Washington), one of whose Indian Country bills became law during the last session of Congress. "Because these sites are federally maintained, the bill's authorization is necessary to assess the sanitation and safety in order to improve these sites tribal use."

The Tanasi Memorial in Tennessee marks the site of the Cherokee Nation capital in the early 1700s. The land could be returned to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians under H.R.453, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act. Photo: Brian Stansberry

The third bill up for passage in the House on Monday is H.R.453, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Historic Lands Reacquisition Act. The bipartisan bill enables the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to reclaim just a small portion of its ancestral territory -- about 76 acres in Tennessee.

A prior version of the measure cleared the House during the last session of Congress by a near unanimous vote but did not move forward in the Senate even though both chambers were controlled by Republicans at the time. The sponsor of H.R.453 is Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-Tennessee).

"This should be something that Members on both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, embrace as a matter of civil liberties, as a matter of doing the right thing, as a matter of keeping our broken promises made for a change," Fleischmann said during debate on his measure in April 2018.

With passage of S.216 and S.50 in the House, the total number of stand-alone Indian Country bills cleared by the 116th Congress rises to three. Though the tally is low, lawmakers have another year to advance more pro-tribal legislation before the session ends in December 2020.

The Lone Pine In-lieu Site is one of 31 sites along the Columbia River where tribal citizens endure substandard conditions despite promises made by the U.S. government in treaties signed during the late 1800s. Photo: Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission

Despite the progress seen these past couple of weeks, Indian Country's legislative agenda has taken a hit during the Donald Trump era. Only about a dozen tribal bills were signed into law by the president during the 115th Congress in 2017 and 2018, when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate.

Historically, about 20 tribal bills have been signed into law during any particular session of Congress, regardless of which parties are running the show in Washington.

Assuming the Donald Trump impeachment resolution moves forward this week, attention turns to the Senate, where a trial is expected to be held in early January 2020. With Republicans in firm control of the chamber, the party has enough votes to keep the president in office.

Join the Conversation

Related Stories
Native language bill clears final hurdle in divided political climate (December 10, 2019)
Trending in News
More Headlines