The U.S. House of Representatives voted today for a jobs-and-tax package that includes approval of two $1 billion-plus settlements for American Indians and black farmers.
The 215-204 vote is a major breakthrough for the settlements, which would serve to end two long-running court cases. Supporters had been working for months to overcome objections, including over the amount to be awarded in attorney fees, without making much progress.
But the settlements still need Senate approval. That won’t happen until the week of June 7 at the earliest, because senators have left Washington for a week-long Memorial Day recess.
Senior Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had been hinting at a confrontation with lawmakers if they did not act. In an April 8 hearing, Robertson extended a deadline for the $1.41 billion Cobell settlement until the end of May and said he would invite members of Congress to a hearing if they had not acted by then. That case involves lost royalty funds flowing from the use of natural resources on Indian land.
The Cobell parties have agreed to another extension, this time until June 15. Kilpatrick Stockton co-managing partner William Dorris, a lead attorney for Cobell plaintiffs, said the parties in the litigation can mutually agree to extend the settlement deadline without judicial approval, and that they are notifying Robertson.
“It’s taken some time to get this before Congress. Needless to say, we are appreciative of the House leadership and many others in the House,” Dorris said. “We start the long weekend on an upbeat note.”
D.C. solo practitioner Dennis Gingold, another lead attorney for the Cobell plaintiffs, also said he was pleased with the House vote. “They got it done,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Justice, which is a party to the Cobell case, said the department "remains fully committed" to implementing the settlement.
Three weeks ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried unsuccessfully to attach the settlements to disaster-relief legislation.
Updated at 3:22 p.m. Mike Scarcella contributed to this report.