WASHINGTON - Pressured to deliver Republican votes on a bill prized by most Nevada casinos, Sen. Dean Heller said Thursday he's working to win approval for online poker legislation this year.
Heller said he is trying to persuade Republican leaders and GOP senators to clear the way for Internet poker legalization, allowing the casino industry to tap billions of dollars now wagered online.
"I've talked to leadership and a couple of colleagues," Heller said, naming Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and leadership deputies Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri. He said the aim was to "make sure ... all of them have an idea of what we are trying to push in this effort."
Heller's comments come amid a new wave of speculation about prospects for a federal bill, as a handful of states are moving to legalize online gambling within their jurisdictions. Gambling Compliance, an industry online newsletter, reported last week that key senators Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., have agreed on a framework for a bill.
Without confirming where negotiations stand, Reid, the Senate majority leader, said Thursday that he and Kyl are talking, and "we're now waiting again, as I do with a lot of things around here, to get some Republican support." Reid aides say he is looking for Kyl and Heller to deliver GOP votes.
Heller said he's "working with Kyl very closely to try to get something to happen."
While summaries of proposed legislation have circulated among a small group of stakeholders, a bill has not been introduced and would not be expected to surface until right before Congress would act. Strategists are trying to identify safe legislation to which a gambling expansion bill can be attached, ensuring passage. Such a major - and controversial - gaming bill could not pass as a stand-alone measure in light of opposition from interests such as casino competitors and social conservatives.
"There are a lot of discussions going on, not a lot of answers at this point," he said. "We're still talking about the nuts and bolts on this but time is running out."
Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. and major Republican donor who is close to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., opposes legal Internet gaming. He has expressed concern about possible expose of young people to a potentially addictive practice.
"He has an opinion and obviously that is taken into consideration, and we have to work with it and around it to try to make something happen," Heller said. "I certainly don't discount his position.
"I want everybody to have a voice in this process, including Mr. Adelson," Heller said. "I don't see his voice being any stronger or any less important than anybody else. He is just part of the puzzle."
A Justice Department opinion late last year has been interpreted as giving states a green light to legalize and tax online operations. Advocates of national legislation say Congress must act by year's end if it is to maintain federal regulation of Internet gaming.
"It is critical that something happens this year," Heller said. "If we get beyond this year, I think that states will have gone too far in their efforts to basically legalize everything." He said 16 states are considering legislation to legalize various forms on Internet gambling.
At that point Congress would come under pressure to exempt states already allowing online gaming, he said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.