Senate blocks floor debate on Hawaiian sovereignty

Posted on June 9, 2006

The Senate yesterday blocked the annual effort to grant Hawaiians the ability to form a sovereign government similar to those operated by American Indians and Alaskans. The so-called Akaka bill, named for Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, died on a 56-41 procedural vote, four shy of the 60 needed to allow a floor debate. Mr. Akaka, who has pushed the bill for seven years, said he was disappointed by the outcome but buoyed by growing support for the legislation. "Native Hawaiians have been recognized as an indigenous people deserving of justice, equality and the recognition according to the other indigenous peoples of the United States," said Mr. Akaka, who is backed by the Hawaiian congressional delegation and Hawaii's Republican governor. Opponents, including many Republican Senators, say the bill violates the Constitution by creating a race-based government. Thirteen Republicans -- including, Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, one of the bill's chief opponents -- voted for a floor debate. Mr. Kyl would not elaborate on why he voted for cloture except to say, "I made a commitment, and I honor my commitments." Two Democrats, Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, did not vote. Mr. Akaka will have to wait another year to try for a floor debate, but the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act will continue to be discussed in the Senate and in Hawaii, where divisions about the bill's constitutional legality remain sharp. "The only justification for this bill, to allow what no other group of people would be able to do, is that they are just another Indian tribe," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican. Under U.S. law, Indian tribes can be recognized only if they have operated as a sovereign entity in the past 100 years and lived in a distinct, separate area. Mr. Alexander said, "Native Hawaiians have not." "This would be the creation of a tribe. This bill would create a new competing government in Hawaii, and it is the wrong way to right the wrongs committed in Hawaii," Mr. Alexander said. Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett, a Republican, said the argument about a lack of sovereign government operation in the past 100 years is moot because the U.S. government acknowledged in a 1993 apology resolution that it illegally overthrew the last Hawaiian monarch. "The argument that this bill is illegal because it is race-based is a legal non sequitur," Mr. Bennett said. "Race-based programs are presumptively illegal, but those with respect to Native Americans and Alaskans are not; Congress' power to recognize or derecognize a native-indigenous group is exclusive and plenary." Hawaiians who oppose the legislation cite poor relations between Congress and nations run by American Indians and Alaskans. "If you look at these negotiations other Native American tribes have had, they are left with 2.2 percent of their land and the situation of poverty and poor education gets worse than they were before the negotiations began," said 'Ehu Kekahu Cardwell, director of the Kohani Foundation, a grass-roots group of Native Hawaiians who oppose the bill.