GOP drops late-hour effort to push Indian casino bill

House Republican leaders have apparently dropped a late attempt to pass a bill that limits off-reservation Indian gaming, after several tribes raised objections.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who opposes one tribe’s effort to build a casino in his district, supported the last-ditch effort to push the bill, which had previously been introduced by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), outgoing House Resources Committee chairman, gaming lobbyists said.

But the measure proved too controversial to fit into a short lame-duck session.

Tribal officials and their lobbyists have urged Congress to wait instead for the Department of the Interior’s own effort to update its rules governing Indian gaming.

A public-comment period on the proposed rule closes next Friday, with a final rule expected sometime late next spring.

“We felt like there was a regulation out there and that we ought to let the regulation go forward,” one gaming lobbyist said.

But Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the House Resources Committee, said that the Pombo measure provided stronger protection against the spread of casinos than is contemplated by Interior.

“Regulations, by their nature, dance within the confines of the existing law,” Kennedy said.

In September, a majority of House members voted to approve the Pombo bill, but the measure failed because it did not receive the two-thirds support it needed to pass on the suspension calendar.

An Interior staff member startled a gathering of tribal officials and Indian lobbyists yesterday morning when he announced that both Hastert and Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) planned to try to push the bill through.

The event was sponsored by the National Indian Gaming Association and took place in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

“The room was packed with D.C. lobbyists there on behalf of their tribal clients,” one lobbyist in attendance wrote in an e-mail to The Hill. “Most are in strong opposition to the bill.”

Hastert, who will yield the Speaker’s gavel next year to Democrat Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), opposes an effort by the Kansas-based tribe to build a casino in his Illinois district.

Generally, federal law limits the construction of Indian gaming casinos to land acquired before 1988. But there are exceptions, in part to allow tribes that had wrongly been denied federal recognition in the past to develop casinos.

Controversy lies in how and how often these exceptions are applied.

Pombo’s bill seeks greater assurances that local officials have a say in the development of a casino in their area, for example. His measure requires tribes to negotiate with local governments as part of efforts to build a casino off-reservation.

Opponents argued that the provision threatened Indian sovereignty by forcing tribes to negotiate with county and other local governments that are not classified by federal law as sovereign.

“Never before has a federal law equated sovereign tribes with counties,” Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) said during the floor debate.

Critics also object to the blanket provision in the Pombo bill that does not allow a tribe to build a casino “on lands outside the state in which the Indian tribe is primarily residing,” according to a congressional summary. Opponents argue that a tribe’s historical connections to a land should be considered in some cases.

The two sides also disagreed on how many “off-res” casinos there are. Indian gaming officials say that there are only three off-reservation gaming facilities.

But Pombo and others say the actual number is much higher than that, and that as many as 50 additional efforts are being made to build casinos outside the usual confines of a reservation.

“Virtually any land in the country could be targeted for gaming,” Pombo warned on the House floor.

Critics say there are already enough protections in place to avoid overdevelopment of casinos. Tribes must negotiate with both the state and the Interior officials to develop a casino, for example.

Gaming issues are always a hot topic on Capitol Hill, in part because of the enormous amount of money often at stake in the debates.

The National Indian Gaming Association states there are 354 tribally operated casinos that employ 400,000 people. Collectively the Indian gaming industry’s annual revenue exceeds $14 billion.