White Mountain Apache water measure sidetracked by labor language

White Mountain Apache Tribe Vice Chairman Kasey Velasquez testifying in 2016 – the first time Congress failed to help the tribe shift funds to deal with their failing groundwater supply. A second attempt at the bill ran into partisan fighting in the House this week. (Photo by Emily Zentner/Cronkite News)

WASHINGTON – A bill to provide desperately needed water-project funding for the White Mountain Apache tribe had been expected to pass easily this week but instead became the focus of a partisan fight over labor regulations.

Democrats accused Republicans of holding the bill hostage in order to pass unpalatable legislation that would exempt tribal-run businesses, like casinos, from the National Labor Relations Act, which safeguards workers’ rights to unionize, among other protections.

But Republicans framed it as a tribal sovereignty measure, noting that it would merely give Native American governments the same rights as federal, state and local governments when it comes to dealing with their workers.

The House passed the amended bill on a 239-173 vote after about an hour of debate Wednesday evening.

The Senate last year passed what was meant to be a simple fix that would let the tribe use funds from a federal water settlement to plan and build drinking water projects. Now, the Senate will have to reconsider the amended bill.

The labor language was added to the water bill Tuesday night by the House Rules Committee, along with language from another noncontroversial bill that clarified leasing rights for some tribes in New Mexico.

Calls to White Mountain Apache officials and to the sponsors of the original measure, Arizona Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, were not immediately returned Thursday. But Democrats blasted the Republican amendments, saying they would doom the bill’s chances.

“Instead of quickly passing these bills … and sending them to the president to be signed into law, House Republican leadership decided to take … those two bills hostage and combine it with a highly divisive bill that’s likely not going to go anywhere,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said during Wednesday’s floor debate.

Although the amended bill could still pass the Senate, a spokesman for Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee said it is “hard to pass controversial bills in the Senate.” And Adam Sarvana said the labor amendment only complicates a bill that could easily have become law.

Sarvana said it is not the first time Republicans have tried to pass controversial legislation by tacking it on to a noncontroversial issue “in hopes the noncontroversial issue will drag across Senate lines.” He said the best bet for the tribe would be to “go back to lobby Republicans as a stand-alone bill.”

This is at least the second time Congress has tried to approve a fix for the Apache water projects, with a similar bill passing the Senate in 2016 before dying in the House.

At testimony in 2016 and again last year, White Mountain Apache Vice Chairman Kasey Velasquez talked of the urgent need for the funding. He said both times that he and other members of his tribe would be “fortunate to live long (enough) to see a child or adult … open a faucet on a kitchen sink to fill a glass of water – something they cannot do today.”

McCain said during the 2016 Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing that the tribe is facing a “drinking water crisis, water wells on the reservation have dropped by 50 percent. The north fork of the White River is expected to run dry by 2020 without the money” for repairs.

But supporters of the labor language said it is needed just as urgently to help tribes escape “grinding unemployment and poverty” through economic development.

“The last thing they need when trying to improve economic opportunity for their citizens is a federal bureaucracy further meddling with their efforts,” said Rep. Kristi Noem, R-South Dakota.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said Republicans were simply trying to gut rights for tribal workers that have long been upheld by courts.

“Instead of undermining workers’ rights, this House ought to be moving forward with policies that help our workers and their families make it in America as part of a strong middle class,” said Hoyer, the No. 2 House Democrat. He said the GOP measure would not do that.