A Full House vs. a Full Senate

Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller are at odds about Internet poker. Actually, not about the game itself, but how to legislate it.

Nevada’s two U.S. senators have exchanged potshots over a bill that would allow Nevada casinos to provide online poker, legally, to gamblers throughout the world. Reid’s office says he asked Heller to gather Republican votes in the Senate to be able to get to the 60 votes needed to debate anything there, and then those votes also would help pass the bill.

Heller now is attacking Reid for setting deadlines and changing strategy. Reid has countered that Heller is trying to cover up the fact that the only other Republican senator supporting the measure is Jon Kyl, the Arizonan who once said that “over 90 percent” of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion services and, when informed otherwise, said that was “not intended to be a factual statement.” In other words, don’t hold out much hope for him.

But why Reid and Heller are sniping at each other over this runs much deeper than the mere question of the right of Nevada casinos to make more money. Both of them support that, naturally.

First, consider the political implications in Nevada. Heller is running for a full term after being appointed to replace John Ensign. Whether Heller wins could determine whether Reid remains majority leader or becomes minority leader. Neither has any political stake in helping the other politically. If Heller looks bad, that might help Rep. Shelley Berkley, his opponent, look good.

That’s actually a far cry from the Reid-Ensign relationship, in which Reid appears to have manipulated Ensign on some issues with the kind of dexterity usually reserved for Olympic gymnasts. Generally, while they often have disagreed about major national issues or concentrated on different issues, Nevada’s two senators have worked well together on matters affecting Nevada, at least since the days when Pat McCarran was the senior senator and considered his junior colleague about as useful as an appendix scar.

Also consider the broader implications. Nevada’s casinos long have been able to invest in operations outside of Nevada, and it has been a boon to them as other states have approved gambling, Indian casinos have proliferated, and Macau could change its name to Cashcau. This has made Nevada’s casino magnates international figures. It speaks to their importance that when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says something about President Obama, the question arises as to what role Sheldon Adelson might play in Netanyahu’s calculations.

And when Adelson questions the value of Internet poker, and is one of the biggest Republican contributors this year, it’s hard not to suspect that lack of Republican interest in passing this measure is twofold. One, when Adelson takes a stand, Republicans might be advised to pay attention. Two, it may well be that online poker is like any debt agreement: Republicans in Congress can’t bear to let any credit go to a Democrat.

How Internet poker would affect Nevada remains to be seen. Other opportunities have meant that all of their eggs are no longer in Nevada’s basket. The opportunity to offer Internet poker might dilute their interest in Nevada still further, or possibly benefit the state by providing another avenue to employment and opportunity.

So, whoever is most responsible for passing the bill, if it eventually passes, will claim that he helped Nevada. Whether it actually will help is hard to say, but it may help us understand the ins and outs of politics a little better, and that could be beneficial, too.