After months of delays, the U.S. Senate came close this morning to approving money for settlements of mass litigation brought by black farmers and American Indians. But the effort failed after an objection from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).
The settlements came up in the context of disaster-relief legislation. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asked that the chamber end debate on the legislation and approve it with an amendment authorizing money for the two settlements. Such a request requires the consent of all senators who are present.
Coburn objected to the request, without explanation. A spokesman for Coburn did not respond to messages requesting comment.
In a statement, Reid expressed frustration with the delays and said he will continue to press for approval of the settlement money. “This represents a long-standing commitment on my part to seek a fair resolution to these issues. Not to mention, we must continue working to resolve other cases of discrimination at the Department of Agriculture against Hispanic and women farmers,” Reid said.
Click here (PDF) for a copy of the 10-page amendment Reid proposed. It would authorize payments under the $1.41 billion Cobell settlement, which involves lost royalty funds flowing from the use of natural resources on Indian land, and under the $1.25 billion Pigford settlement for black farmers who were denied equal access to Agriculture Department loan programs. The amendment would also authorize the Interior Department to purchase $2 billion worth of land as part of the Cobell settlement. (Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell is pictured above.)
Last week, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) proposed five changes to the Cobell settlement, including a $50 million cap on pre-settlement attorney fees, costs, and expenses. The cap did not make it into the amendment Reid proposed.
UPDATE (2:04 p.m.): Coburn's office has released a statement saying his objections related to the larger disaster-relief legislation — in particular, how to pay for it. He also noted that most senators are not in Washington today to debate the legislation.
“By dropping a racially-charged measure into a $5.1 billion disaster bill at the last minute he was essentially threatening senators to give their immediate consent or risk being demonized,” Coburn said in the statement. “I am not intimidated by the Majority Leader’s gambit, and I’m confident the voters will sort who is playing partisan politics in November.”
Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi.