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October 9, 2015

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Heller may hold last piece of online poker puzzle

Dean Heller

Dean Heller

Sen. Harry Reid

Sen. Harry Reid

Reports that Sens. Harry Reid and Jon Kyl are inching closer to a deal on legalizing online poker have heads turning toward Nevada’s junior senator, Republican Dean Heller, to see if he will be able to help close the deal.

“We need to do something to make it fair,” Reid said Thursday. “Now we’re looking, as with a lot of things around here, for some Republican support.”

Heller is one of only a handful of senators privy to the embryonic deal developed between Reid and Kyl, which has yet to surface as a draft document or designate a legislative vehicle to go through Congress.

“They’re trying to discuss the vehicle on how they’ll push this forward, but they haven’t decided at this point,” Heller said Thursday. “So a lot of discussion going on, not a lot of answers.”

The stakes really couldn’t be higher for Heller. Bring along a bunch of Republican senators, especially before the election, and you get to claim credit for a big win — perhaps the most important gift the federal government could give to the state’s economy. But fail, and the state loses.

Goodwill is not flowing terribly freely between Republicans and Democrats these days, which is what makes the role of Republican online poker ambassador so potentially important to the process.

The Republican party, save for a smattering of individuals, hasn’t historically warmed to the idea of legalizing online poker. Nevada representatives, coming as they are from the biggest gambling bastion in the country, have naturally stepped into the role — they’ve just never been successful.

Heller would be the first to tell you there’s no time for more failed attempts.

“Time’s running out,” he said Thursday. “If we get beyond this year, I think states will have gone so far, too far, in their efforts to legalize everything ... that I do believe if we don’t do something by the end of the year, it will be too late.”

So far, Heller hasn’t been entirely clear about what his role will be — though he did say Thursday that he has been talking poker with Sens. Mitch McConnell, John Cornyn and Roy Blunt — all members of the Republican leadership team. (Heller and Blunt know each other well from when both served in the House.)

Nor did he share any ideas with reporters Thursday for how new political deals could be struck that would advance a legalization.

But Heller is striking a unique, potentially compelling-to-Republicans tone when it comes to the politics of the situation.

In the past several months, Reid has frequently referred to the indictments of bad-actor companies, the proliferation of states legalizing their own internal gaming outfits, and the need for fairness as urgent, compelling reasons to support an online poker legalization. If he’s blamed anyone, it’s been the Republican drafters of a 2006 bill that made online poker illegal in the first place, for their short-sightedness (and given that Kyl is his main partner in this deal, he really doesn’t throw that kind of blame around much).

Heller backs Reid’s legislative efforts, but he’s picked a different scapegoat: the Obama administration.

“I think this all started last year when New York and Illinois convinced the administration to change the Wire Act,” Heller said, saying Congress had to tighten the rules regulating Internet gaming before more states put lotteries and other non-poker ventures online. “I didn’t like it nor did many people like the way the Justice Department interpreted the Wire Act ... The only reason we have to do that is because of the interpretation of the Justice Department of the Wire Act.”

His historical hindsight may be a little near-sighted. But for Republicans, it may also be what sells.

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