FILE PHOTO: Clouds form over the U.S. Capitol in Washington

Bill that would have given Maine tribes benefits of future federal law is blocked

PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Congress has halted a bill that would have allowed Native American tribes in Maine to get the same benefits of future federal laws that tribes across the rest of the U.S. do.

Native American leaders in Maine blamed independent Sen. Angus King for blocking the proposal, which would have applied to tribes bound by terms of a Maine land claims settlement.

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“There is no legitimate policy justification for the Wabanaki Nations to be treated differently from all other 570 federally recognized Tribal Nations, yet that is what this outcome will perpetuate,” said Chief William Nicholas Sr. of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, known as Motahkmikuk.

The U.S. House approved the bill in July but congressional negotiators did not include the provision in the $1.7 trillion spending bill that must be approved before midnight Friday when Congress is scheduled to adjourn.

In a statement, King said he’s committed to working with tribes, but had “serious concerns about the legislation in its current form and the unintended consequences it poses for the state of Maine.” He said previously in a letter to constituents that changes must be negotiated by all parties, “and not be unilaterally imposed by Congress.”

It was unclear if Republican Sen. Susan Collins took a position but her spokesperson said she’d “consider it carefully” if the bill advanced through the regular Senate process.

It was the second major defeat for tribes in Maine this year.

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A proposal to grant sovereignty that was taken away under a 1980 land claims settlement was tabled by the Maine Legislature under threat of veto by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills. The settlement treats tribes in Maine like municipalities, subject to state law, instead of sovereign nations like other federally recognized tribes.

“The Wabanaki Nations have never been closer to amending the poorly designed and intentionally one-sided Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act and our inability to be included in this year-end legislation really stings,” said Chief Rena Newell of the Passamaquoddy Tribe at Sipayik, also known as Pleasant Point.

Democratic Rep. Jared Golden, who sponsored the federal bill with fellow Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine, said he was disappointed but insisted that the “issue is not settled.”

“Ensuring the Wabanaki tribes have the same access to future beneficial federal laws and programs as nearly every other federally recognized tribe in the nation would have a meaningful impact on both tribal members and the surrounding communities in our state,” he said in a statement.

The future of both the federal bill and the state sovereignty proposal are uncertain. Both could be reintroduced in their respective legislative bodies in the new year.