In what could become a major roadblock to GOP efforts to cut government spending, two influential senators promised Monday to fight a $17.1-billion recision bill passed last week in the House because they believe it would gut social programs for Native Americans.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) warned that the package of spending cuts would sharply scale back or completely eliminate a wide network of job, housing and education programs promised to tribes and reservations.
Noting that the reductions come after a decade of steady decline in federal funds for Native American programs, the lawmakers pledged to work to kill the spending cuts when the package reaches the Senate floor, possibly as early as next week.
McCain, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said it is "inconceivable" that more than $4 billion would be chopped from programs for Native Americans, or almost 3% of federal funding for this year.
"It's fundamentally and morally wrong," he said. "This would diminish the already declining resources."
Inouye, who is the panel's vice chairman, was equally emphatic in his opposition to the recision package, saying that he fears Indian nations would see it as yet another broken treaty.
"We have broken too many promises already," he said. "We shouldn't continue that process."
Even if GOP budget-cutters find a way to placate McCain and Inouye, their opposition underscores the growing risk of key defections as Republican leaders begin to translate general budget-balancing promises into specific program cuts. Many programs deemed expendable by House Republicans are likely to come under sharper scrutiny in the Senate, where more deliberative debate could tie up the proposals for some time.
A host of other domestic spending reductions in the bill have drawn sharp criticism from Democratic senators, particularly over proposed cuts in the public broadcasting system, arts programs, housing projects and President Clinton's national volunteer initiative, called AmeriCorps.
But until McCain stepped forward Monday, no significant Republican opposition in the Senate had emerged. McCain and Inouye's stance against the cuts signals trouble for the bill in the Senate, where other major House Republican initiatives, such as the balanced-budget amendment, have already gone down to defeat.
McCain and Inouye expressed their opposition to the recision at the opening of a Capitol Hill hearing on how the cuts would affect Native American programs.
They also noted with some interest a desire by House Republicans to fold the myriad domestic spending programs into large block grants to the states--something that Native American leaders long have sought, to give their tribes more autonomy in deciding how to spend federal funds.
"Block grant proposals are fully consistent with a movement that has been going on in Indian country for the last 20 years," Inouye said.
But, he and McCain said, it would be unfair to give block grants to the states and not Native American tribes. And they indicated that if that occurs, Indian groups will be in a less tenable situation because they will be lobbying state governments for fewer allocations.
Ada Deer, assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Interior Department, told the panel that two decades of federal policy toward Indians and Alaskan natives would be undermined by the spending cuts approved by the House Thursday.
She said that special tribal courts would be scaled back, large housing construction projects eliminated, and capital improvement and economic development programs scrubbed. "The need out there is great, and the population of Indian tribes is increasing."
No one at the hearing testified in support of the cuts.
James Kohlmoos, acting director of the Education Department's Indian programs, said that more than $31 million in student aid and anti-drug programs would be dropped from Indian youth programs, a hit that would be exceptionally hard because drugs continue to plague many reservations.
"It's a never-ending battle," he said, explaining that drugs and firearms are problems for Native American youths, just as they are for the rest of American society.
Officials of the Smithsonian Institution argued that the cuts would seriously jeopardize plans to display Native American artifacts in a yet-to-be-opened National Museum of the American Indian.
Under the recision package, $987,000 would be cut from the museum's planning and design.