Two Republican senators running for president reintroduced a bill Wednesday that would effectively ban Internet poker and other forms of online gambling—legislation that has long been championed by casino magnate and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
Both Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio joined a handful of Republicans and one Democrat in reviving the Restoration of America’s Wire Act, a measure that proponents say would “restore” the proper interpretation of a decades-old federal ban on some gambling operations by expanding it to include Internet gambling.
The four-page bill is nearly the same as a measure introduced last year and closely mirrors a bill offered by House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz this year. The online ban has failed to gain traction in either chamber of Congress, but Adelson—whose net worth tallies in the billions and who has made a name of himself as one of the biggest funders of Republican presidential campaigns—remains an influential and ardent supporter.
Backers of the bill, including Graham and Rubio, say that Adelson’s influence has nothing to do with their support. They argue that the Obama administration acted beyond its bounds in 2011 when it issued a Justice Department memo clarifying its reading of the 1961 Wire Act, which historically has been used to police all forms of gambling. That memo said that interstate gambling across “wire communications” that do not relate to sports betting do not fall within the scope of the act.
“Now, because of this decision by the Obama administration, virtually any cell phone or computer in South Carolina could become a video poker machine,” Graham said in a statement. “A major rewrite of a long-standing federal law like this should be made by the people’s elected representatives in Congress and signed into law by the president, not done administratively.”
But the legislation’s critics, including poker groups and former Rep. Ron Paul, have accused its sponsors of succumbing to blatant cronyism to appease Adelson’s deep pockets. As chief executive of Las Vegas Sands Corporation, Adelson presides over a brick-and-mortar casino empire and has vowed to spend unlimited amounts of money to end U.S. gaming sites. Though his detractors see the lobbying as self-serving, Adelson has argued those sites—which exploded in popularity over the past 15 years—amount to a “societal train wreck waiting to happen” because they undermine family values.
John Pappas, the executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, suggested in a statement that Graham’s introduction of the bill wasn’t being respectful of the recent mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“As the eyes of the nation are focused on South Carolina following the recent tragic event, I think I speak for most Americans when I express profound disappointment in Senator Graham for choosing this time to advance a bill for the sole benefit of a billionaire political donor,” Pappas said. “The Congress made the decision to adjourn early so they could attend services on Friday in Senator Graham’s home state. Unfortunately, Senator Graham has not reset his priorities and picked a very unfortunate time to engage in the Internet gaming debate.”
Adelson so far has not publicly pledged fealty to any one GOP contender this cycle, though he did make donations to Graham’s Senate reelection campaign last year. That cash coincided with a sudden interest in online gambling from the senator, who had been quiet on the issue. Adelson also cochaired a Graham fundraiser in February of this year.
Rubio has been relatively quiet on online gambling as well. But many believe the Florida defense hawk’s policy positions line up well with Adelson’s priorities, particularly in regard to national defense and Israel.
Adelson launched the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling last year, amid action from several statehouses to reduce or remove restrictions on online gambling. In a statement, the group said there was a “tremendous amount of momentum” for curtailing Internet gaming.
“Predatory online gambling is ruining lives all across our country and this bill will help us stop it,” John Ashbrook, a coalition spokesman, said.
Other sponsors of the Restoring America’s Wire Act include Republicans Kelly Ayotte, Mike Lee, Dan Coats, and Thom Tillis, in addition to California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
This story has been updated.