The lame-duck session of the U.S. Congress following the recent general election is very important, as the country approaches the “fiscal cliff” that requires massive cuts to government programs unless Congress can reach agreement on how to avoid it. And that’s just the start. Dozens of other issues await attention that were ignored during the long and bruising campaign.
One of the least important issues that Congress has been avoiding in the past year is the legalization of online poker. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada’s senior senator, has pledged to make a push on the issue during the session because he believes it will aid his struggling state’s major industry, gaming. Dean Heller, recently elected as the state’s junior senator for the first time (he was appointed to the seat of disgraced John Ensign, who resigned in 2011), also pledges an effort to pass the bill. Reid and Heller had been feuding throughout the summer, hurling accusations at each other of playing politics with online poker.
Now that the election is over, Heller will be expected to round up Republican support for the bill, not an easy task. Even the respected Jon Kyl, Arizona’s retiring Republican senator, hasn’t been able to cement backing from his party’s colleagues, so the task will not be easy.
But passing the Senate is the easy part. The House of Representatives awaits, packed with conservative Republicans who would love to put a stake in the heart of one of Reid’s pet projects. Texas Congressman Joe Barton had introduced an online poker bill earlier this year, but it got nowhere, dying without a hearing in Rep. Mary Bono Mack’s Subcommittee on Commerce. Online gaming’s other champion, Rep. Barney Frank, serving the last days of his congressional career as well, is nowhere to be found.
And complicating the issue is the opposition of Las Vegas Sands Chairman Sheldon Adelson, the biggest economic force in the Republican Party. His connections to House leadership, particularly Virginia Congressman Eric Cantor, could sink the bill with one phone call.
In addition, several state governors, including Maryland’s Martin O’Malley, have written letters to the Senate asking that any online poker legalization be blocked, claiming the issue should be under state control. The state lotteries have also spent millions lobbying Congress to shelve the issue. Last month, Massachusetts Treasurer Steven Grossman wrote to Kyl and Reid complaining about the bill’s negative impact on lottery profits.
“The commissioners believe this unwarranted and unjustified usurpation of authority will be harmful to the residents of Massachusetts,” he said in the letter.
The text of the Reid-Kyl bill was released in October, with the ominous title, “The Internet Gambling Prohibition And Online Poker Consumer Protection Act.” Despite the law enforcement and player-friendly theme, the bill is likely to still be controversial, particularly in a session that must consider many more weighty matters. Reid is likely to attach it to another bill that is likely to pass, so it flies below the radar. But prospects are still dim for a bill, freeing the states to pursue their internet gaming dreams.