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Gorton Forced To Drop Attack On Tribal Rights Senator Wins Promise To Revisit Controversy

Wed., Sept. 17, 1997

With a tough floor fight looming, Sen. Slade Gorton agreed Tuesday to drop his controversial proposals ending Indian tribes’ long-standing immunity from civil lawsuits and cutting federal funding for tribes making money off casino gambling.

But in backing down, the Washington Republican gained important concessions that ensure both issues will be revisited next year.

In exchange for dropping his proposal requiring the tribes to waive their sovereign immunity or lose up to $767 million in federal funding, Gorton received assurances from Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., that the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold two or three hearings on the issue.

Campbell, the only Native American in the Senate and chairman of the committee, also said the committee will vote next spring on a bill Gorton plans to introduce ending the tribes’ immunity.

In dropping his proposal to reduce federal funding for tribes that make money off gambling and other tribal enterprises, Gorton and Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, agreed to send a letter to the General Accounting Office asking for a study of tribal finances and a review of the way federal funds are distributed.

The GAO, Congress’ bipartisan investigative arm, has a year to report its findings.

“It will be a matter of intense relief to many of my colleagues that we will not hold any roll-call votes,” Gorton said, as the Senate adopted two amendments dropping his proposals from the Interior appropriations bill by unanimous consent.

As chairman of the Senate interior appropriations committee, Gorton had quietly slipped the two provisions into the bill and faced the prospects of an emotional floor fight as Campbell rallied the opposition.

The tribes launched a major lobbying campaign to defeat the proposals. Representatives of more than 100 tribes participated, arguing that they had the same right to protection from civil lawsuits that federal, state and local governments have had. They also contended that without such immunity they would go bankrupt.

In Washington state, however, the Legislature waived sovereign immunity for the state in 1961 and for local governments in 1963.

The tribes also argued that Gorton’s proposal subjecting their funding to what amounted to means testing unfairly singled them out, since state and local governments face no such provision.

“Today, Indian country earned a major victory in the protection and preservation of our tribal way of life,” said W. Ron Allen, president of the National Congress of American Indians. Allen also leads the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe of Washington state.

In a series of meetings in Stevens’ office over the past several days, Gorton agreed to the compromise. Gorton, Campbell and Stevens attended, along with Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye, the ranking Democrat on the Indian Affairs Committee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Campbell, Inouye, McCain and Domenici all opposed the Gorton proposals.

“We have won today,” said Domenici, who represents a state where 10 percent of the population is Native American. But Domenici said the coming debate over the future relationship between the tribes and the federal government would be wide-ranging, and changes in the tribe’s sovereign immunity might not be out of the question.

Campbell said Gorton’s provisions “constituted a dramatic departure from existing federal Indian policy. We can’t begin to contemplate what effect they would have on Native American people.”

Gorton said while he might not have prevailed this year, he was satisfied with the compromise.

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