Members of Congress are still looking for a way to authorize two, billion-dollar agreements that would settle litigation involving the federal government and minority groups.
The House of Representatives had included authority for the settlements in a bill authorizing supplemental war funding. It passed the House July 1. But senators rejected that idea Thursday in the latest setback for the proposed $1.41 billion Cobell settlement for American Indians and $1.25 billion Pigford settlement for black farmers.
By a vote of 46-51, senators decided not to end debate on the House’s version of the bill, meaning Democrats fell 14 votes short of the 60 they needed to advance the bill. The House’s version included other domestic matters, as well, including funding for teacher salaries, so the vote encompassed much more than the two settlements.
Also Thursday, Democrats blocked a separate attempt to authorize the two settlements because of a dispute over attorney fees. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) wants to cap fees in the Cobell settlement at $50 million, or half the maximum that lawyers in the case have agreed to. Representing the plaintiffs are D.C. solo practitioner Dennis Gingold and a team from Kilpatrick Stockton.
When Barrasso proposed that senators authorize the settlements with his changes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) objected. “This is a beat-up-the-lawyer amendment, and we won’t agree to that,” Reid said.
Previously, Republicans have objected to Reid’s attempts to authorize the settlements without the lower cap on attorney fees. In a statement after his own objection, Reid argued that Republicans are still the ones holding up the settlements, saying they are “preventing individuals and families who suffered discrimination for decades from receiving a long-overdue resolution to their grievances.”
The Cobell settlement would resolve long-standing claims by American Indians involving lost royalty funds flowing from the use of natural resources on Indian land. The Pigford settlement for black farmers would resolve claims that they were denied equal access to Agriculture Department loan programs.
Lawyers in the Cobell case have set an Aug. 6 deadline for congressional authorization.