It took a reverent nanosecond after Byron Dorgan announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate last week for the political-corpse-is-cold-enough speculation to begin: How will the power and committee dominoes fall?
One likely outcome, as first reported by The Hill newspaper, has Washington's junior Senator, Maria Cantwell, assume Dorgan's chairmanship of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in 2011 (a prospect that assumes Democrats maintain their majority). Under this scenario, Cantwell leapfrogs more senior committee members Daniel Inouye, Kent Conrad, Daniel Akaka, and Tim Johnson because each currently chairs or is in line to chair other committees.
Cantwell's 2011 assignment would be a fitting coda to her 2000 election squeaker when she unseated incumbent Slade Gorton (full disclosure: I worked as a Cantwell speechifier that year). Gorton was considered an Indian Country adversary in part because of his defense as state Attorney General in U.S. v. Washington, what subsequently became known as the Boldt decision.
Sensing Gorton's vulnerability, Northwest tribes rallied around Cantwell, providing financial and organization support crucial to her tweezer-length 2,229 vote margin.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, formerly under the rubric of the old Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, was established as a select committee in 1977 and made permanent in 1984. Past chairs include Senators McCain, Inouye, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
"I personally believe Sen. Cantwell would be an excellent chair," said state Rep. John McCoy, a member of the Tulalip Tribes and director of Quil Ceda Village. "Her home state has 29 federally recognized tribes, and she and her staff have listened to tribal members as well as all the citizens of Washington. The senator has worked in a consultative manner to help resolve issues in Indian Country."
McCoy's supportive but carefully parsed reaction might be a clue to the minefield Cantwell is stepping into. Committee issues, from trust responsibilities to land management, are often controversial and extremely complex.
An aide acknowledged that Cantwell does not have a record or signature policy focus beyond trying to listen and respond to tribal concerns. "That will change once she becomes chair," the aide said, "She'll quickly find her footing."