WASHINGTON -- The Senate yesterday dashed efforts to give indigenous Hawaiians some of the same powers of self-governance granted to American Indians, with critics warning that it could lead to race-based privileges in a state known for its diversity.
A procedural vote fell four short of the 60 votes needed to keep the bill on the Senate floor. The legislation, promoted by Senator Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii, over the past seven years, is now effectively dead for this session of Congress.
The vote was 56-to-41 in favor of proceeding with the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. All 41 opposing votes were cast by Republicans. Thirteen Republicans and one independent joined 42 Democrats in supporting further action on the bill.
Akaka said he was disappointed by the defeat but heartened by the support of a majority of senators. He said, ``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."
Akaka, backed by the Hawaiian congressional delegation and Hawaii's Republican governor, Linda Lingle, argued the legislation was needed to redress wrongs that have persisted since the US backed overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1893.
The measure would have given the 400,000 people nationwide of Native Hawaiian ancestry new say over resources and lands on the islands.
But Senator John Cornyn, Republican from Texas, said it violated both the letter and spirit of the Constitution. ``I cannot and will not support a bill whose very purpose is to divide Americans based upon race," he said.
Assistant Attorney General William Moschella, in a letter yesterday to majority leader Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, said the administration ``strongly opposes" the bill because it would reverse the country's melting-pot tradition and ``divide people by their race."
Akaka, a Native Hawaiian, said the bill would unite the Hawaiian people by providing a process to deal with ``unhealed wounds" that have persisted since the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani.
For more than 100 years Congress has treated Native Hawaiians in a manner similar to American Indians and Native Alaskans, Akaka said. When it comes to a policy on self-governance, he said, ``Native Hawaiians have not been treated equally."
While people in Hawaii are divided over the bill, it had the solid support of Hawaii's congressional delegation, all Democrats, and Governor Lingle.
The US Commission on Civil Rights, in a May report, recommended against passage, saying it ``would discriminate on the basis of race or national origin and further subdivide the American people into discrete subgroups."
Akaka argued that the commission ignored the changes he agreed upon with the administration.