U.S. Senate Fails to Pass Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act

Published April 17, 2018

Pushed for bill to be amended to include other major priorities for Indian Country, including for housing, veterans, Native languages

WASHINGTON —  On Monday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined the Senate in voting 55-41 in favor of beginning debate on the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act, the first Indian Affairs bill in a decade to receive a vote on the Senate floor. The bill failed to receive the 60 votes necessary to move forward for final consideration.

Although he supported moving forward with the legislation, Udall voiced serious concerns in a speech on the Senate floor following the vote about the majority’s politically motivated process and the lack of bipartisan cooperation on the bill for Tribal communities. Udall had pushed for an amendment that would have included major priorities for Tribes – to address housing, veterans’ care, and Native languages, among other needs – which have languished in the Senate for many years. But the majority leader chose to emphasize wedge-issue politics and divisiveness and refused to consider opportunities to strengthen the bill.

Vice Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Tom Udall – D – New Mexico

In his remarks, Udall said he was disappointed that the Senate majority rejected the opportunity to do more for Indian Country.

“Over this decade – during which both Democrats and Republicans have held a majority – Indian Country has seen its priorities sidelined. Important legislation that touches the lives of Native veterans, Native families, and Native communities – from Maine to Hawaii, from Florida to Alaska – makes it out of the Indian Affairs Committee only to die waiting on the Senate legislative calendar, often due to objections by one or a small handful of Senators,” Udall said in his speech. “Legislation like the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Act, the PROGRESS for Indian Tribes Act, and the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2017: all broadly supported bipartisan bills that have gotten stuck in the legislative process for five, 10, even 15 years; all broadly supported bipartisan bills that Indian Country needs. They address pressing issues like homelessness, language loss, and economic development. And all of these broadly supported bipartisan bills are central to fulfilling our solemn trust and treaty responsibilities.”

“It is shameful that, when the Senate gives Indian Country its first shot in 10 years, Republicans closed the debate to prevent consideration of other pressing pieces of Indian Affairs legislation,” Udall continued in his remarks. “I’m amazed that there will be no time for amendments. There will be no time for this body to do what it’s supposed to do: deliberate. Instead, the majority leader limits consideration to one issue – chosen specifically to amplify partisan rancor. We should be working together for Indian Country. The majority isn’t doing that. It is using a wedge issue to pit people against each other in an attempt to score political points.”

Udall is a supporter of strong labor protections and the working families they protect in New Mexico and around the country. But as a long-time advocate for Indian Country, he said he understands and respects how integral Tribal sovereignty is to Tribal governments. That was one reason he pushed so hard for a better legislative package for Tribes, he said.

Following the vote, Udall joined with Minority Leader Charles Schumer in sending a letter to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John Hoeven urging them to give other Indian Affairs legislation the same attention as the Tribal labor bill.

“I wanted a better deal for Indian Country. Indian Country had to wait 10 years for today’s vote. We should have had full opportunity to bring other issues on the table. Housing, public safety, self-determination and self-governance – these are equally deserving of the Senate’s consideration,” Udall said on the floor. “We could have considered legislation that would do more to unite us, than to divide us.”

The full text of Udall’s floor remarks as prepared are below.

For the first time in 10 years, this body has just considered a bill from the Committee on Indian Affairs using a cloture filing and valuable floor time. Let me repeat that: for the first time in 10 years, this chamber just debated an Indian Affairs bill using valuable floor time — not unanimous consent.

For a Senate majority, floor time and cloture filings are the coin of the realm. And this is the first time in 10 years it’s being spent on a Tribal issue.

Over this decade – during which both Democrats and Republicans have held a majority – Indian Country has seen its priorities sidelined. Important legislation that touches the lives of Native veterans, Native families, and Native communities – from Maine to Hawaii, from Florida to Alaska – makes it out of the Indian Affairs Committee only to die waiting on the Senate legislative calendar, often due to objections by one or a small handful of Senators.

Legislation like the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Reauthorization Act, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Act, the PROGRESS for Indian Tribes Act, and the Indian Tribal Energy Development and Self-Determination Act Amendments of 2017: all broadly supported bipartisan bills that have gotten stuck in the legislative process for five, 10, even 15 years; all broadly supported bipartisan bills that Indian Country needs. They address pressing issues like homelessness, language loss, and economic development. And all of these broadly supported bipartisan bills are central to fulfilling our solemn trust and treaty responsibilities.

My colleague, the senior senator from Montana, tells the same story about his fight to gain federal recognition of the Little Shell Tribe. This legislation is important to Montanans and Tribes he represents. It has been fighting for a day on the floor since 2008. And my distinguished colleagues from Washington first took up the fight to get the Spokane Tribe Settlement Act signed into law – back in 2003.

I am honored to work with so many colleagues who dedicate themselves – each and every day – to fighting for Indian Country. But we can’t do that if Indian Affairs legislation is not given equal weight to other bills. It is shameful that this full body does not consider and resolve these and other important issues. And it is shameful that, when the Senate gives Indian Country its first shot in 10 years, Republicans closed the debate to prevent consideration of other pressing pieces of Indian Affairs legislation.

I’m amazed that there will be no time for amendments. There will be no time for this body to do what it’s supposed to do: deliberate. Instead, the majority leader limits consideration to one issue – chosen specifically to amplify partisan rancor. We should be working together for Indian Country. The majority isn’t doing that. It is using a wedge issue to pit people against each other in an attempt to score political points.

When Republicans were in the minority, Senator McConnell lamented the lack of debate. He complained that legislation was “dropped on the floor with little or no opportunities for members to participate in the amendment process, virtually guaranteeing a fight.

As the majority leader said, simply and eloquently, “Bills should come to the floor and be thoroughly debated . . . . This is the Senate . . . . Let the Senate work its will, and that means bringing bills to the floor. It means having a free and open amendment process. That is legislating.

I couldn’t agree more. We came here to craft legislation. We came here to take tough votes

That process may take more time, more work and more cooperation. But it would lead to better outcomes for everyone. And, most importantly in this case, it would lead to better outcomes for Indian Country.

Let there be no mistake: Indian Country loses when we give in to partisan rancor. We’ve seen this play out before. When the trillion dollar tax cut was rammed through this chamber without any input from my Democratic colleagues, what happened? Indian Tribes were entirely left out in the cold. There was not a single provision for Indian Tribes in a trillion dollar package.

On the other hand, we know what happens when bipartisanship prevails. Senator Murkowski, my chairman on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, and I were able to deliver big wins for Indian Country in the FY18 omnibus.

We increased funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs by $204 million. And we increased funding for Indian Health programs by another $500 million. That is almost three quarters of a billion dollars – because Democrats and Republicans decided it was better to work for Indian Country instead of against each other.

As anyone in Indian Country will tell you, Indian Affairs issues transcend partisan politics. Native policy issues go to the core of the trust responsibility — to the government-to-government relationships enshrined in our Constitution and countless treaties. Sadly, that is not true today.

I wanted a better deal for Indian Country. Indian Country had to wait 10 years for today’s vote. We should have had full opportunity to bring other issues on the table. Housing, public safety, self-determination and self-governance – these are equally deserving of the Senate’s consideration. We could have considered legislation that would do more to unite us, than to divide us — like the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act, which expired in 2013. This important program benefits Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Alaska Natives.

In my home state of New Mexico, like most of Indian Country, NAHASDA is the primary source of funding for Tribal housing needs and development. For instance, in Isleta Pueblo, 44 percent of households are low-income. Without NAHASDA funding, the Pueblo would be unable to address this crippling need.

Reauthorizing NAHASDA would provide Tribes like Isleta the certainty they require to meet current and future housing needs. Instead, we voted on a package negotiated without my input — even though it included my bill, the Santa Clara leasing act. My Republican colleagues described this as a bipartisan package, but no Democrat was consulted, including me. For the record, S. 140 was put together behind closed doors. That is truly a shame.

As a long-time advocate for Indian Country, and the current vice chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee, I understand and respect how integral Tribal sovereignty is to Tribal governments. I am, and always will be, an unwavering supporter of Tribal sovereignty.

I am also a supporter of strong labor protections and the working families they protect in New Mexico and around the country. The tough issue here is that, for decades, Tribes were treated as states and local governments and not subject to the National Labor Relations Board. Recent Board and court decisions have changed that in some parts of the country, but not others, resulting in a patchwork of regulations.

The previous administration proposed a compromise approach, but neither side embraced it. I hope that changes.

But no matter the outcome today, I will continue to fight for Indian Country and seek new opportunities to enact longstanding Tribal legislative priorities.

I close with past advice from my colleague, the majority leader: “If you want fewer fights, give the other side a say.”

I agree. And I urge the majority leader to give us — and Indian Country — a say.

I yield the floor.

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