Internet poker: Not the sure bet senator thought it was

Back in October, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said he was confident he and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could work together after the election to pass a bill legalizing interstate Internet poker by the end of the year.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” Sen. Heller told the Review-Journal editorial board in October.

“I have no doubt when this race is over, Senator Reid and I will sit down and say ‘OK, we got this behind us now, let’s work together and get this done,’ ” the Republican said of Internet poker. “And I have no doubt that it needs to get done by the end of the year.”

The federal government wouldn’t collect any taxes on Internet gaming, Sen. Heller explained at the time, though Sen. Reid’s bill does call for a 16 percent “online poker activity fee” – an odd bureaucratic pass-through, with most slated to be returned to the states and tribes running casinos, less a 2 percent administrative fee.

Legalizing online poker and establishing a framework for national regulation, the bill would open a market for casino companies that have been positioning themselves to cash in. Many are planning to center their operations here in Nevada, with its established regulatory environment.

Yet, asked again last week, with the election three weeks past, what’s holding up passage, Sen. Reid, D-Nev., offered a one-word response: “Republicans.” Sen. Reid said Tuesday that support from at least a dozen Republicans is still needed to win passage and, so far, that support isn’t there.

“That’s his answer to everything – blame Republicans,” Sen. Heller responded, adding that he was actively seeking support from his Republican colleagues, including Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas. Although he’s now “beating the bushes,” Sen. Heller said he’s no longer sure he can deliver the needed Republican votes, increasing the odds against Congress legalizing online interstate poker this session.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said.

What’s changed so much in a mere six weeks, since the senator expressed such confidence in October?

Admittedly, Nevada’s congressional delegation is small, and – Sen. Reid excepted – not rich in seniority. And let’s also be clear: There are some deals that should not be made to get this bill passed, such as any open-ended commitment to wasteful future borrowing and spending.

But the principles of sound salesmanship don’t have to be reinvented. First, educate colleagues on the importance of this measure to the state hardest hit by the Great Recession, as well as the fact that Internet gaming is not going away, whether Congress is wise enough to establish a rational regulatory environment or not. Then identify the objections of those who remain unconvinced and offer them something they can embrace.

Nevadans do not welcome more partisan finger-pointing from their delegation, at this point. They expect to see teamwork and results.

And they have a right to ask why Sen. Heller, who made it all sound like a cakewalk six weeks ago, can’t at least bring a dozen of his colleagues to the table for some serious bargaining.

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