WASHINGTON — A draft bill that would legalize poker playing on the Internet is being floated on Capitol Hill, but Nevada Sen. Dean Heller said Tuesday there is no sign that it will move in any direction.
Heller said he has been briefed on the bill by Caesars Entertainment Corp. lobbyist Haley Barbour. The Las Vegas-based company reportedly wrote the draft. A purported copy of the Caesars bill examined by the Las Vegas Review-Journal would effectively ban forms of Internet gambling, but carve out an exemption for poker.
It is similar to what Nevada has already legalized for in-state gamblers, and to what Heller, a Republican, and Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., have promoted generally on behalf of Nevada gaming companies, including Caesars and MGM Resorts International, that are pushing for poker to be legalized and regulated federally.
But Heller said he is in no rush to embrace the legislation, or any specific legislation. Rather, Heller said the issue is taking shape in Congress and he is encouraging more discussion among the players including lawmakers who are supporting bills to outlaw online gaming entirely.
“There’s something floating around,” Heller said of the new draft bill. “I don’t have it, I’m not carrying it, and I don’t think Senator Reid’s office is carrying it either.”
Heller said he and Reid are working as a team on the politically sensitive Web gambling issue, which has split the Las Vegas casino industry and caused the American Gaming Association, the industry’s lobbying group, to withdraw from the debate.
“We will treat it like any other proposal,” Heller said of the draft. “We’ll take a look at it, we’ll read it and determine whether or not it is something we can support. I’d like to get all these ideas on the table at one time and move in the appropriate direction.”
As for the latest proposal, “It’s not a bill draft that I anticipate at this point that (Caesars) is expecting myself or Senator Reid to (sponsor),” Heller said.
Kristen Orthman, a Reid spokeswoman, said Caesars “is operating on (its) own. We had no idea where this draft came from and learned of it through the media.”
Jan Jones Blackhurst, a Caesars Entertainment senior vice president who is overseeing the company’s lobbying on Web gaming, could not be reached Tuesday.
The latest developments come as Congress remains stalemated over online gambling. In that void, states continue to explore legalizing forms of Web betting, with Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey already acting.
Heller said he has held discussions with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. They are sponsoring bills sought by Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson to ban Internet gambling outright. If those bills advance, Heller suggested he might try for amendments to make them poker-friendly.
“I told that to Chaffetz and I told that to Graham,” Heller said. “Let’s move this process forward. If your bill comes to the floor, I may consider amending it and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t have a problem with them moving forward. Both myself and Senator Reid want to get something done.”
Heller said in February that he and Reid would sponsor an online gambling bill in a month or so, but that has not materialized.
Heller said Tuesday he is increasingly pessimistic that Congress will tackle a gaming bill in an election year. Some believe the issue could surface in a postelection lame duck session if there is one.