Interior spending bill approved despite anthrax
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As fears and rumors of anthrax spread throughout the U.S. Capitol, the House on Wednesday took the unprecedented step of closing its doors for the next few days to test for the rare bacteria.

Meanwhile, 23 members of Majority Leader Sen. Tom Daschle's (D-S.D.) staff and three aides to Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have tested positive to a potent form of the rare bacterium that killed a Florida man and has infected his co-worker. But unlike the House, the Senate has said it will remain open.

Despite yesterday's scare, Congress was able to approve a $19.1 billion Department of Interior spending bill. The measure includes a number of increased for Indian Country, despite an overall cut to the Interior and related agencies.

But the majority of the boosts are for education construction, a priority of the Bush administration, and land and water settlements. In fact, the bulk of the $61 million increase at the Bureau of Indian Affairs is to make payments on claims the government has settled with various tribes.

Among the claims being paid: $6 million for the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Tribe of California (land), $2 million for Santo Domingo Pueblo of New Mexico (land), $8 million for two Ute tribes in Colorado (water), and $5 million for the Shivwits Band of Paiute of Utah (water). Ojibwe Tribes in Michigan would get a $4.3 million boost to $6.3 million for a fishing rights settlement with the state.

Breaking into the $1 billion backlog of repair at crumbling tribal schools will be about $293 million for construction. The Senate version of the bill sought an additional $3 million but the lesser House version was accepted due to "budgetary constraints," according to a joint House-Senate committee.

The funding will be sent to the schools with the most need, as defined by the BIA's Education Facilities Replacement Construction Priority List. The top six schools on the list are: Wingate Elementary in New Mexico, Polacca Day School in Arizona, Holbrook Dormitory in Arizona, Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico, Ojibwa Indian School in North Dakota, and Paschal Sherman Indian School in Washington.

With the Individual Indian Money (IIM) debacle threatening to explode, the bill provides $99.2 million for the Office of the Special Trustee, with additional BIA funds directed to trust reform. But repeating earlier concerns, the joint commitee said last week it was "very concerned" about the government's failure to provide an estimated 300,000 American Indians with an accounting of the funds they are owed.

"If the Department, working with the plaintiffs and the Court, cannot find a cost effective method for an historical accounting, the Congress may have to consider a legislative remedy to resolve this and other litigation related issues," the committee warned.

Until the Interior provides Congress with a report "detailing the methods and costs associated with an historical accounting," no funds will allocated, said the committee. Secretary Gale Norton has set up a special office to address the accounting, headed by a former member of the Clinton administration.

So far, the only firm date the Office of Historical Trust Accounting has offered is to finalize a plan by the mid-year 2002.

Besides the trust fund, firefighter safety was the only subject about which Congress expressed serious concerns.

The bill goes on to President Bush for his signature.

Get the Interior Bill H.R.2217:
Text | Conference Report

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