Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
September 1, 2015

Online Gambling Foes Raise the Stakes

A new hand started Wednesday in the high-stakes battle over online gambling.

The fight involves some of the nation’s most powerful figures, including Las Vegas casino mogul and major GOP contributor Sheldon Adelson, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other assorted characters who don’t line up neatly along partisan lines.

After lawmakers unveiled legislation Wednesday to revive a ban on Internet gambling, Sen. Dean Heller didn’t immediately bash it.

The Nevada Republican said he was still reviewing the bill, but said it seemed like “a reasonable first step.” Heller has found common ground with Reid, the Silver State’s senior Democratic senator, in seeking to allow for legal online poker in Nevada and other states that so choose, while otherwise bringing back prohibitions under the Wire Act that were upended in 2011, when the Justice Department reinterpreted the law’s gaming ban to allow states to deploy a wide variety of games.

Both sides seem to want to get out of the regulatory no man’s land created by the 2011 reinterpretation.

“This is about really the wild, wild west on the Internet and restoring the Wire Act so that there is authority to address crime that occurs with regard to Internet gambling,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the prohibition being spearheaded by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“To just have an individual … in the bowels of the Department of Justice unilaterally making this change, we believe it’s wrong,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who is spearheading the House companion effort.

When asked if the Graham bill would compete with a poker measure, Heller said “not necessarily.”

But, how could that be? Perhaps because while Graham and his House GOP counterpart Chaffetz insist they would oppose efforts to amend their bill with a poker carve-out, they seemed to invite the debate.

“There are those that would argue that Internet gambling should happen in a broad stroke. Some believe that Internet gambling should happen just for poker,” Chaffetz said. “If there is a case that people want to make for online gambling, they need to come to the Congress.

“The Congress could, or should, debate this and then perhaps that piece of legislation would ultimately pass,” Chaffetz said, adding, “I personally would be against that.”

As the man in charge of Senate floor operations, Reid might be able to devise a process to rig the game so that an amendment to provide a poker exemption would have to be adopted to move forward. As for the more prohibitive bill unveiled Wednesday, Graham insists he isn’t doing the bidding of Adelson in proposing the change.

“I would say that Sheldon has aligned himself with most Baptists in South Carolina,” the Republican senator said.

“South Carolina rolled back video poker gambling,” Graham said. “We banned video poker. If this interpretation holds, every cellphone is a video poker terminal. I’m on solid footing in South Carolina with people I represent. The fact that Sheldon is on board is a good thing, but I’m doing this because this is what my governor, my attorney general has suggested I do and what I think I should do.”

There’s bipartisan support for the bill in each chamber, and whenever the debate comes, the efforts won’t fall neatly on partisan lines. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, was among the lawmakers at Wednesday’s rollout and Graham has the backing of longtime online gaming opponent Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

“Internet gambling has been a longstanding position of mine and I’m happy to be on [Graham’s] bill,” Feinstein said.

Gabbard’s involvement should be no surprise, either, since Hawaii and Utah both have gambling prohibitions.

Humberto Sanchez contributed to this report.

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