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Indian pact funds get fresh chance

Stalled settlement worth $3 billion tied to war bill

HELENA – The U.S. House of Representatives attached a $3.4 billion government settlement with Indian trust beneficiaries to a war-funding bill that it passed just before breaking for the July Fourth holiday.

The settlement was one of several additions made late Thursday to the $80 billion appropriations bill that includes funding for the troop surge in Afghanistan and money for federal disaster assistance. It authorizes the Obama administration to settle a class-action lawsuit with between 300,000 and 500,000 American Indians who claim the Interior Department mismanaged billions of dollars held in trust by the government.

The House originally authorized the settlement in May, but it was tucked into the Democrats’ jobs legislation that stalled in a Senate filibuster late last month.

The plaintiffs hope including the settlement in the war-funding and disaster-relief bill will mean the Senate will approve it.

“We expect that the Senate must give prompt and serious consideration to the bill because, without enactment, there are no funds for our war efforts and no funds for FEMA,” plaintiffs attorney Dennis Gingold said Friday. “The bill is too important to this country. Partisan politics must not obstruct passage.”

Gingold credited House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer with moving the settlement authorization forward, calling him a “true champion for individual Indian trust beneficiaries.”

Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet woman from Browning, Mont., who filed the lawsuit in 1996, has urged passage of the settlement, saying it’s long overdue.

Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said he supports the settlement but voted against the measure because the public had not been given a chance to examine all the additions to the spending bill.

“Denny supports finalizing the Cobell settlement but not when it means putting funding for American soldiers at risk and adding billions to already record-breaking deficits,” Rehberg spokesman Jed Link said. “The emergency war supplemental shouldn’t be used to fulfill an election-year wish list.”


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