In one of his most overt attempts yet to advance his party's chances of winning back a GOP-held Senate seat, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is pinning the blame on his junior Nevada colleague, Republican Sen. Dean Heller, for the failure to move an online poker measure.
Though the bill is a priority of powerful home-state casino interests, Reid's latest move appears designed to make Heller look bad and boost Democratic Rep. Shelley Berkley's chances of taking the seat, as well as Reid's own chances of remaining Majority Leader.
"It's really a failure in leadership of my friend," Reid told reporters Tuesday, in reference to Heller.
"I have done everything within my power to get the Republicans to come up with some votes. This is an important piece of legislation," he said. "It deals with the criminal element."
About a year ago, the Justice Department issued a legal memorandum saying only sports betting would be barred by a law restricting gambling over interstate wires. Since then, more than a dozen states have explored whether to allow other forms of legal online gambling, increasing pressure for federal action.
Heller noted that Delaware has changed state law to permit basically all online gambling.
Casino owners are concerned that an explosion of unregulated online gaming could threaten their businesses, and they're hoping legislation requiring regulation of the industry will help their companies to control most of the poker that's played online.
"Several months ago, Sen. Reid asked Sen. Heller to secure Republican votes to help pass an Internet poker bill and to date, Sen. Heller has not been able to secure any support," Reid spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said. "Unfortunately, rather than standing to fight for this important issue for Nevada, Sen. Heller has decided to run for cover and attempt to lay blame on others."
Reid gave Heller a deadline of early this week to round up the GOP votes needed to pass it. A Democratic aide said the deadline was needed to ensure enough time for floor consideration before the Senate recesses for the elections. The aide said Reid has 45 Democratic votes in favor of legalizing online poker, which would mean Heller would need to find 15 votes to get past an expected filibuster.
Though they have ostensibly been working together on online poker, Reid has worked aggressively to help oust Heller. Previously, Reid brokered a nonaggression pact with former Republican Sen. John Ensign, with whom he served for 10 years. Because Heller was appointed after Ensign resigned in 2011, sources say Reid reasoned that he was fair game. If Heller wins, Reid could offer a new nonaggression pact with his GOP colleague.
But for now, it's gloves off, and Republicans contend that Reid is engaging in a bait-and-switch.
In a letter sent Monday to Reid, Heller said the House should move first in response to the Justice Department action.
"I am concerned with attempts to impose a deadline ... providing little if any time to reconfirm the necessary support among my conference," Heller wrote.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) concurred with Heller's letter, saying those involved in the gaming issue want the House to originate a measure to overturn the controversial legal opinion.
"The fact is that through a series of conversations we've had, those of us who were working on this thought that the best approach would be to have legislation start in the House to deal with the attorney general's changing of the interpretation of the Wire Act," Kyl said. "Have the Senate then adopt the legislation, and ?- if it be its will - to add the poker exemption and then send the bill back to the House for its final approval and then on to the president."
Supporters of legislative action say the revised interpretation could open the floodgates to the online gambling business. Reid, Heller and many gaming interests want to restrict the operation to only Web poker games. Under the process endorsed by Heller and Kyl, the Senate would add a poker exception to a House bill that would bar all online gaming.
A Democratic aide said Reid's office never anticipated the House would go first. Rather, Reid would use his prerogatives as Majority Leader to find a moving vehicle, the aide said. Reid would have considered attaching the language to an appropriations bill or to the cybersecurity bill that ultimately stalled before the August recess.
Kyl said Tuesday that he raised questions about the Senate moving first on poker, and in any event, Reid's ability to have delivered a measure that would reach President Barack Obama's desk seems in doubt.
The underlying cybersecurity measure became mired in a dispute between Democrats and many Republicans, and the Senate passed none of the 12 regular appropriation bills for fiscal 2013.
That inability to move forward on appropriations has led to the continuing resolution to fund the government for the next six months released Monday evening by the House Appropriations Committee. It looks to be the only must-pass bill before the November elections, and there has been no indication that anyone will try to attach provisions related to the Wire Act.