Friday, July 28, 2006

McCain races to solve tribal funds dispute

WASHINGTON - The next few days may be Sen. John McCain's last best opportunity to resolve 10-year-old litigation against the federal government over billions of dollars in mineral royalties and land leases long denied to Native American landowners.

With time running out on the congressional session as well as on McCain's chairmanship of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, the Arizona Republican has set a hearing for Wednesday to finalize details of his bill to settle the class-action dispute.

The effort to bring together the opposing sides is a test of McCain's political pull and power of persuasion as he eyes a possible run for the presidency in 2008.

He needs to forge a settlement that satisfies Native Americans while it overcomes objections from congressional opponents who worry about the costs to taxpayers, including funds for retracing and verifying individual accounts and money owed. That is a goal that no one to date has managed to accomplish.

The case could linger for years longer in the court system if McCain's bill cannot solve the matter.

"I'm taking him for his word that he would work as hard as he could to get justice for Indian people," Eloise Cobell, a Blackfoot rancher and banker from Montana who filed the class-action lawsuit in 1996, said Thursday.

The lawsuit, Cobell vs. Kempthorne, seeks to force the government to account for billions of dollars held in trust for as many as 500,000 American Indians and their heirs. It alleges that royalty payments the federal government was supposed to distribute to thousands of individual Native Americans have been mismanaged for more than a century.