A Senate Democrat is pushing a bill that would allow a separate government for ethnic Hawaiians.
Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and other Republicans also support the bill, which critics say would have dire ramifications beyond Hawaii.
"By creating a race-based government in the United States, we would be enhancing a trend toward the Balkanization of our culture," said Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the Senate Republican Policy Committee chairman. "This would be the first time that we would actually be creating a race-based government entity within the United States."
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, would designate ethnic Hawaiians -- thought to account for about 20 percent of the state's population -- as an "indigenous people" comparable to American Indians and Alaska natives.
"All my bill does is clarify the political and legal relationship between native Hawaiians and the United States, thereby establishing parity in the federal policies towards American Indians, Alaska natives and native Hawaiians," Mr. Akaka told The Washington Times last week.
In March, Mrs. Lingle said the bill would help preserve ethnic-Hawaiian culture. She denied critics' claims that "federal recognition of native Hawaiians constitutes a race-based preference or racial discrimination."
She told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that the bill would help "individual native Hawaiians to become more self-sufficient, which reduces their reliance on state and federally funded services." She said that a "Native Hawaiian government" could take control of state and federal programs for social services that spend money collected from taxpayers nationwide.
Mr. Akaka said the bill does not automatically "transfer ... any lands, assets or natural resources," but provides for a process for the proposed ethnic-Hawaiian "governing entity" to negotiate such matters with the state and federal governments.
Although details would have to be negotiated, a separate government likely would grant ethnic Hawaiians the same kind of dual U.S.-tribal citizenship as American Indians. Like Indian tribal members, they could be prosecuted for crimes by federal and native authorities and would travel under U.S. passports.
The transfer of any lands to the ethnic-Hawaiian government would be negotiated and, proponents say, probably require further federal and state legislation.
Opponents claim that the process would lead to the ethnic-Hawaiian "entity" having a government-to-government relationship with the United States and autonomy over the affairs of native Hawaiians, with the rest of the state's population represented by Hawaii's state government.
"This bill is un-American in that it seeks to define citizenship based on race, rather than shared ideals," said Bruce Fein, a constitutional lawyer and Justice Department official in the Reagan administration.
Critics say the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2005 would deny state and county governments the full exercise of civil and criminal procedures and jurisdiction over homeland security, render the "tribal" government immune from lawsuits for breach of contract and personal injury, and empower the entity to make unlimited campaign contributions of untaxed dollars as a way to buy political influence.
Sen. Craig Thomas, Wyoming Republican, said his major concerns are the "high, ongoing costs" for federal programs aiding native Hawaiians under the bill as well as the process it sets out for a separate governing entity.
Sen. James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, has opposed similar legislation, citing concerns from some of his state's tribes.
Mr. Akaka said his bill "provides a process for the reorganization of the native- Hawaiian governing entity for the purposes of a federally recognized government-to-government relationship."
He said the "action is similar to the restoration of an Indian tribe."
"Congress has recognized native Hawaiians as the indigenous peoples of Hawaii and has enacted more than 160 laws to address the conditions of native Hawaiians."