Interior budget bill generates strong debate
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The House adjourned late last night without approving the Department of Interior's $19.7 billion spending bill but not before heavy words were exchanged on some of its most controversial provisions.

After nearly ten hours of debate, the chamber killed, by a voice vote, provisions affecting the department's role in the Florida Everglades. House leaders with jurisdiction over the matter raised objections to actions taken by Reps. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) and Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) on a $7.8 billion restoration plan.

Skeen, who is retiring as chairman of the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee, and Dicks, the ranking member, also came under fire for $827 million in land management programs. But two attempts to reduce fire suppression funds first by $162 million and then by $51 million failed by large margins.

Throughout the day, Skeen and Dicks defended their actions on other fronts. "This is a good bill and a generous bill given our nation's priorities since the terrorist attacks on September 11," said Skeen, who was frequently praised for his years in Congress.

Other lawmakers weren't as convinced and attacked provisions affecting Indian Country. They accused Skeen's subcommittee of breaking House rules by approving a study of tribal gaming and limiting a full historical accounting to more than 500,000 Indian trust fund beneficiaries.

"I believe in fact it's meddling with the American Native," said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska). "The injustice and wrong that's been done to them all these years . . . this is yet another example."

Members of the Congressional Native American Caucus, a bipartisan group of 99 lawmakers rallied against the Commission on Native American Policy and the trust fund language. "These provisions were not developed in consultation with Indian Country," asserted Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.).

"Why are in the world some members of Congress attempting to deny these account holders a full accounting of their trust funds?" he said, referring to Skeen's refusal to provide funds for an accounting prior to 1985. The Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust dates to 1887.

"The provision would assume the balances of 1985 were correct," chimed in Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Am.Samoa), "even though the government admits that money has been mismanaged for decades."

"We owe the Native Americans funding, it's their money," he added. "We were the trustees and we failed in that responsibility."

Amendments to strike the disputed language are expected to be offered by Reps. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the ranking member of the House Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over Indian issues, and Reps. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) and Dale Kildee (D-Mich.), also panel members and co-chairs of the Native caucus. Debate on the Everglades and fire funds largely prevented action yesterday.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) defended his gaming commission nonetheless. He angrily accused Indian opponents -- including the National Congress of American Indians, the largest inter-tribal organization, and the National Indian Gaming Association, which represents more than 150 tribes -- of not wanting to hear the truth.

"What are they afraid of among Indians?" he said, raising his voice. "The poverty level is 26 percent and yet they don't want a commission to look at it."

"If you really care about Indians," he later yelled, "what are you afraid of?"

Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) disputed Wolf's goals. "The Wolf portion of this bill, I think, is a strike against Native Americans," he charged.

The House convenes this morning with another round of debate.

Relevant Documents:
Rahall Letter (7/15) | Hayworth-Kildee Letter (7/12) | 8th Court Monitor Report (7/11) | House Committee Report (7/9) | Senate Committee Report (6/27)

Relevant Bills:
H.R.5093 | S.2708

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

Related Stories:
Objections on trust fund ignored (7/16)
House to debate DOI funding bill (7/16)
IIM project affects little in trust (7/16)
House trust fund bill opposed (7/15)
Full accounting said not 'cost effective' (7/15)
Griles slammed for ignorance (7/12)
DOI denies involvement in House bill (7/12)
Court monitor releases new report (7/11)
ABC program to focus on Indian trust fund (7/11)
Tribes express doubts on trust reform (7/11)
Norton delivers accounting plan (7/5)
Cobell kicks off Indian Country tour (7/3)
Trust fund monitor defended (7/2)
Historical accounting plan delayed (7/2)
Norton's accounting funds limited (6/28)
Griles can't explain trust standards (6/27)