The House bid farewell to departing Rep. Neil Abercrombie last week by passing the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, a vote the Hawaii Democrat emotionally described as "the culmination of a legislative lifetime for me."
It’s probably just as well that Abercrombie is now back in Honolulu. He won’t be around to watch as his beloved bill, which would establish a separate race-based government for Native Hawaiians, struggles under the weight of Republican opposition, Democratic bumbling and White House interference.
Just a few months ago, it looked as though the planets had finally aligned for the act, better known as the Akaka bill after its Senate sponsor, Democrat Daniel Akaka. President Obama had said he would sign the bill, House passage was all but guaranteed, and the Democrats held a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.
The outlook has since become considerably less rosy. First the Democrats lost a key Senate seat, and now the coalition backing the Akaka bill is in chaos. In December, two of the bill’s key figures, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett, both Republicans, pulled their support, thus ending any pretense of bipartisan unity.
Their decision to bolt can be chalked up to Democratic overreach. Shortly before the House committee vote, the Obama Administration and Hawaii Democrats quietly drew up an amended version of the bill that grants governing authority to Native Hawaiians before, not after, negotiations with the state and federal government.
The bill essentially gives Native Hawaiians the same legal footing as Indian tribes. Unlike tribes on the mainland, however, Native Hawaiians and their ancestral lands are scattered throughout the islands, creating the specter of two parallel governments with sovereign immunity and legal jurisdiction over two groups of citizens as determined by blood and ancestry.
Lingle and Bennett, who didn’t learn of the changes until hours before the House committee vote, immediately reversed their support for the bill. That didn’t stop bill from winning House approval — the vote was 245-164 — but Lingle’s opposition is viewed as a serious impediment to Senate passage.
The bill has passed the House three times since 2000. It’s never won passage in the Senate, and although it won committee approval in December, there’s no floor vote on the horizon.
More than a few Hawaiians are worried about the impact of Lingle’s reversal. Clyde Namuo, an administrator with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a driving force behind the bill, told the Honolulu Star Bulletin, "Having the governor’s support is going to really make the difference, in my mind."
In an editorial entitled "Put Akaka Bill Back on Track, or it Will Die," the Honolulu Advertiser urged Hawaii Democrats to accede to Lingle’s demands by dropping the amendments and reinstating the bill’s original language.
"The unease of the governor is no small thing in the real world of Hawaii, where there is already suspicion and alarm about what the presence of a sovereign government entity could mean for non-Hawaiians," said the Feb. 24 editorial.
That schism "is certain to give opponents an opening to rally more stridently against the bill, and they could persuade others to join them," the editorial continued.
Indeed, the bill has never been popular among congressional Republicans, and the ramped-up version gives them even less to like. Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) has already put a hold on the Senate bill and vowed to do whatever necessary to stop it, calling it "racially divisive and discriminatory."
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R.-Tenn.) and DeMint’s wingman on the issue, said after the House vote, "In America, we say, ‘One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’ not ‘Many nations, divided by race with special privileges for some.’"
Hawaii Democrats do hold one trump card: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, who’s a co-sponsor of the Akaka bill and represents the crucial 60th vote in the Senate.
The Alaska delegation has traditionally sided with Hawaii lawmakers on recognition issues, based on their own experience with Native Alaskans. But Murkowski may be rethinking her support for the Akaka bill, given Lingle’s switch and subsequent criticism. Two calls about the Akaka bill to a Murkowski spokesman were not returned.
Hawaii Democrats worked frantically in the days before the Feb. 23 House vote to draw up a version of the Akaka bill that would meet Lingle’s approval. The governor didn’t budge. At least one poll shows support on the island is waning, while calls for a referendum vote on the issue have intensified.
The best hope for the Akaka bill could come next year. Lingle is term-limited, and her successor could be none other than Abercrombie, who’s running for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Having sponsored the House bill, Abercrombie could find himself in a position as governor to help salvage it in 2011. At that point, however, it’s unlikely the Democrats will hold their sizeable advantage in the Senate — and the Akaka bill’s window may have closed. Republicans can only hope that it’s for good.