Congress moved closer Tuesday to allowing Native Hawaiians to establish their own government despite objections from the state's governor.
By a vote of 245-164, the House passed a bill largely along party lines that gives Native Hawaiians the same opportunity provided to Alaska Natives and 564 Indian tribes — the chance to govern their own affairs in partnership with their state and the federal government.
It's been 117 years since the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy. Hawaii's senators and representatives say the legislation would partially make amends for the downfall.
But the legislation goes beyond securing the right to self-governance for Native Hawaiians. The reconstituted government will eventually negotiate terms for acquiring land that's in a trust the state oversees. Those lands make up one-quarter of Hawaii's mass and are worth billions of dollars.
"Today's vote is a major step in the century-long effort of Native Hawaiians to reconcile the history of past injustice and move forward together for all of Hawaii," Office of Hawaiian Affairs chairwoman Haunani Apoliona said in a statement issued in Honolulu.
Republican Gov. Linda Lingle said she opposes the bill because the legislation gives the new government broad authority, with negotiations with the state to follow. In previous versions, the negotiations took place first.
Other critics say the measure is unconstitutional because it establishes a government whose membership is based on race. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said state residents should have their own election on the issue.
"Citizens of Hawaii voted overwhelmingly to join our union as one unified state," Hastings said. "Today under this bill, Congress will vote on dividing the state of Hawaii through the creation of a separate government entity based solely on race."
Prospects for the legislation have never looked brighter with President Barack Obama hailing from Hawaii and giving his backing. On Tuesday, the White House issued a statement reiterating his support.
"(He) looks forward to signing the bill into law and establishing a government-to-government relationship with Native Hawaiians," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
Hawaii's congressional delegation has long championed the legislation, but it has yet to clear both chambers. There is no timetable for consideration in the Senate.
About 240,000 people on the islands identify themselves as Native Hawaiians.
On the Net:
The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act: http://thomas.loc.gov
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