Harry Reid wants vote to legalize online poker

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U.S. Majority Leader Sen. Harry Reid speaks to the media after a Senate Democratic caucus meeting on Capitol Hill December 8, 2010.

If you play online poker for money, you’re probably breaking the law. Four years ago, Congress stopped banks and credit card companies from sending money to gambling websites. That could change soon.

Before the lame duck session is over, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to tackle a bill to legalize online poker. The Nevada Democrat and his staff won’t talk about it – but a draft bill has been circulating on Capitol Hill.

It would restrict licensing for online poker to the brick-and-mortar casinos that have been in business at least five years and that make at least 5 percent of the national take from gambling. The bill is a sort of “thank you” to casinos in Reid’s home state.

Dave Levinthal with the Center for Responsive Politics says "more so than any other lawmaker in the United States, Harry Reid over the years has benefited from money for his campaign from casinos and gambling interests."

The Center for Responsive Politics is the Washington, DC-based group that tracks campaign contributions on its website OpenSecrets.org. Levinthal says more than $700,000 rolled into Reid’s campaign from gambling interests since the senator began his fourth term in office. Harrah’s – which runs 14 casinos in Nevada - gave more than $50,000.

"It’s a gamble by the gambling industry," Levinthal says. "They’re spending some degree of money now so that in the future when things are going to happen or materialize in a legislative format to maybe have a better chance at getting the result that they want." And Nevada casinos want a piece of the online poker pie.

But Senator Harry Reid isn’t the only lawmaker getting casino campaign contributions - and Nevada casinos aren’t the only gambling interests giving money to lawmakers. Levinthal says there are "several California representatives and senators who are represented on the top 20 list of the casino and gambling money recipients."

Most of the gaming money given to California lawmakers comes from Indian tribes that would also qualify to run online poker. Lawmakers on the receiving list include Democratic LA Congressman Xavier Becerra; he got nearly $50,000 from Indian tribes in the past two years. During that same election cycle, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer got $46,000; so did newly-elected Republican Congressman Jeff Denham of Fresno. None would comment on how they’d vote on legalizing online poker.

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