The U.S. House of Representatives voted 256-152 today to approve two multibillion-dollar settlement agreements that have been winding their way through Congress and that would benefit minority groups with claims against the federal government.
Legislation authorizing the settlements now heads to President Barack Obama, who is expected to sign it. As The National Law Journal reported today, administration officials made a last-minute push to see that the settlements won final approval from lawmakers.
Under debate rules pushed through by Democrats, the House made no changes to the legislation that senators approved Nov. 19. The legislation authorizes a $3.4 billion settlement with American Indians, including lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, who say the U.S. Interior Department mismanaged trust accounts for natural resource royalties. It also authorizes $1.15 billion, in a case named for plaintiff Timothy Pigford, for black farmers who say they were discriminated against by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Debate among House members this afternoon was heated and partisan.
“We did the wrong thing, and all of us acknowledge it is never too late to do the right thing,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), speaking in favor of the settlements.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) spoke against money for the Pigford plaintiffs. He called the settlement “modern-day reparations” for slavery, and he said the standards for filing a claim to be part of the settlement were too loose. “It’s gotta be fraud,” he said.
In a statement after the vote, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. called the settlements “truly historic” and said they “offer a new relationship between many deserving Americans and the federal agencies that play an important role in their lives.”
Updated at 5:32 p.m. with Holder's statement.