WASHINGTON — The Senate has approved almost $4.6 billion to settle long-standing claims brought by American Indians and black farmers against the government.
The money has been held up for months in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans squabbled over how to pay for it. The two class action lawsuits were filed over a decade ago.
The settlements include almost $1.2 billion for black farmers who say they suffered discrimination at the hands of the Agriculture Department. Also, $3.4 billion would go to Indian landowners who claim they were swindled out of royalties by the Interior Department. The legislation was approved in the Senate by voice vote Friday and sent to the House.
President Obama in a statement praised the Senate for passing the bill and urged the House to move forward on it. He said his administration is also working to resolve separate lawsuits filed against USDA by Hispanic and women farmers.
"While these legislative achievements reflect important progress, they also serve to remind us that much work remains to be done," he said.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe from Browning, Mont. and the lead plaintiff in the Indian case, said Friday that it took her breath away when she found out the Senate had passed the bill. She said was feeling despondent after the chamber had tried and failed to pass the legislation many times. Two people who would have been beneficiaries had died on her reservation this week.
"It's 17 below and the Blackfeet nation is feeling warm," she said. "I don't know if people understand or believe the agony you go through when one of the beneficiaries passes away without justice."
John Boyd, head of the National Black Farmers Association, said the passage of the black farmers' money is also long overdue. "Twenty-six years justice is in sight for our nation's black farmers," he said.
Lawmakers from both parties have said they support resolving the long-standing claims of discrimination and mistreatment by federal agencies. But the funding has been caught up in a fight over spending and deficits. Republicans repeatedly objected to the settlements when they were added on to larger pieces of legislation. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., satisfied conservative complaints by finding spending offsets to cover the cost.
The legislation also includes a one-year extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which gives grants to states to provide cash assistance and other services to the poor, and several American Indian water rights settlements in Arizona, Montana and New Mexico sought by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
In the Indian case, at least 300,000 Native Americans claim they were swindled out of royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887 for things like oil, gas, grazing and timber. The plaintiffs would share the settlement.
The Cobell lawsuit has dragged on for almost 15 years, with one judge in 2008 comparing it to the Charles Dickens' "Bleak House," which chronicles a never-ending legal suit. Using passages from that novel, U.S. District Judge James Robertson noted that the "suit has, in course of time, become so complicated" that "no two lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises."
The Indian plaintiffs originally said they were owed $100 billion, but signaled they were willing to settle for less as the trial wore on. After more than 3,600 court filings and 80 court decisions, the two sides finally reached a settlement in December.
"Personally I still think we're owed a hundred billion dollars, but how long do you drag this thing out?" Cobell said Friday. "Do you drag it out until every beneficiary is dead? You just can't do that."
Cobell said she feels confident about passage in the House, where the two settlements already have passed twice as part of larger pieces of legislation.
For the black farmers, it is the second round of funding from a class-action lawsuit originally settled in 1999 over allegations of widespread discrimination by local Agriculture Department offices in awarding loans and other aid. It is known as the Pigford case, named after Timothy Pigford, a black farmer from North Carolina who was an original plaintiff.
The government already has paid out more than $1 billion to about 16,000 farmers, with most getting payments of about $50,000. The new money is intended for people — some estimates say 70,000 or 80,000 — who were denied earlier payments because they missed deadlines for filing. The amount of money each would get depends on how many claims are successfully filed.
The bill passed Friday would be partially paid for by diverting dollars from a surplus in nutrition programs for women and children and by extending customs user fees.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said with the passage of the Cobell settlement: "This is a day that will be etched in our memories and our history books."
The Obama administration has aggressively moved to resolve the discrimination cases after most of them have lingered a decade or more in the courts. Last month, the Agriculture Department offered American Indian farmers who say they were denied farm loans a $680 million settlement.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said passage "marks a major milestone in USDA's efforts to turn the page on a sad chapter in our history."