WASHINGTON -- Advocates for online poker were increasingly pessimistic Thursday about the prospects for passing legislation this year that would make the game legal, according to Capitol Hill and industry officials.
Sen. Harry Reid, the chief proponent, issued a statement in defense of the Internet poker bill he has drafted with Nevada casino input, and that major gaming companies view as a potential bountiful source of revenue.
Reid did not comment on its prospects, a day after he denied telling a reporter the bill was dead.
But top aides to the Senate majority leader on Thursday signaled to allies the outlook to attach it as an amendment to a year-end tax bill was glum, if not terminal, due to determined opposition from Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.
"Kyl is telling Reid he definitely will not budge on it and he won't let it on the bill," a Capitol Hill aide said.
"There reaches a point where there is no more, and they are there," another congressional official said. "On the other hand, there is a week to go, and anything is possible."
Stymied on the tax bill, Reid was looking to attach the poker bill to other legislation that could be considered during the lame-duck session expected to end next week, according to sources.
Among them was a budget and spending bill that Congress must pass to keep the government running. Another was a bill to renew programs to combat diabetes among American Indians.
Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said Thursday that House Republicans also are being approached "to see if they would be willing to do it possibly even next year if we can't get it done this year. We are trying to work all the different angles."
Ensign said he supported legalizing online poker but that the Senate draft bill still needs work.
The final days of Congress often are marked by last-minute closed-door deals and the resurrection of bills long thought buried. So the fate of an Internet poker bill might not be determined until lawmakers go home or until Reid publicly gives it up for dead -- or announces its passage.
Ensign said late surprises are less likely this year. In the wake of much-publicized backroom deals like the "Cornhusker Kickback" in the health reform bill last year, senators are paying more attention.
"There is so much attention paid to the end of the cycle than in the past," Ensign said. "On all kinds of things. There is much more sensitivity to things being shoved into these" bills.
Reid said in a statement Thursday the bill "is good for the country and for Nevada."
"Millions of Americans" play poker online "in an essentially unregulated environment" that offers no protections to prevent minors from gambling or to ensure the games are fair and honest, he said.
"The legislation I am working on would get our collective heads out of the sand and create a strict, regulatory environment to protect U.S. consumers, prevent underage gambling and respect the decisions of states that don't allow gambling."
In his first explanation of the bill, Reid said other forms of casino gaming would remain illegal online, "while increasing penalties and strengthening the ability of law enforcement to shut down illegal sites."
Ensign said he supports legalizing online poker as a potential boon to Nevada casino operators, and has spoken to fellow Republican Kyl. But he said there are "technical problems" that are still being negotiated.
"There are different players in Nevada that like different parts of it," and dislike other parts, Ensign said.
He declined to discuss the nuts and bolts, saying he did not want "to negotiate in public."
"There is no question it is going to be tough," Ensign said of passage this year.
Kyl, the second-ranking Republican leader in the Senate, is a longtime opponent of Internet gaming. He was a major supporter of the online gaming ban that quietly was added to an unrelated port security bill that passed at midnight the day before Congress adjourned in 2006.
The Arizona senator has vowed not to let Reid turn the tables this year. His spokesman Ryan Patmintra said Kyl "would oppose any attempt to include an online poker bill as part of a bipartisan agreement to extend tax rates for American families."
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., a proponent of legalized online gambling, said Kyl "has a manic obsession with Internet gaming that is both not based on fact and is foolish."
Without offering specifics, Berkley said Reid had satisfied Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
"Every objection McConnell had was answered," she said. McConnell's office did not comment.
If the poker bill cannot be added to pending legislation in the Senate, "then it can't come over to the House and can't become law," Berkley said.
"It would be a terrible blow, a terrible blow" to the Nevada-based industry that is thirsting for new revenue streams, she said.
"Unless Sen. Reid can pull off another miracle, or unless Sen. Kyl can be prevailed upon ... that's it, those are the options," Berkley said.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760.