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House majority votes with Pombo on gaming bill setback

WASHINGTON – The House of Representatives voted Sept. 13 against advancing a major Indian gaming reform bill without amendment or full debate.

The 247 – 171 vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required to pass a bill under a so-called “suspension of rules.” The suspension limited debate on the bill to 40 minutes and prohibited congressional members from offering amendments. Without a supermajority of two-thirds in favor of suspending the rules, the bill failed. But the 247 votes cast in favor of passage suggest that it would prevail under ordinary rules that require a bill to pass with a simple majority.

Senior staff on Capitol Hill, speaking on condition of anonymity because next steps for the bill have not been determined, said the 247 yea votes mean the bill will pass by a simple majority any time the leadership in the Republican-majority House may choose to bring it up again. But with few working days left on the congressional calendar, “now the question comes down to time.”

The bill sought to restrict Indian gaming establishments to the boundaries of reservations, a response to the desire of numerous tribes to open casinos at lucrative off-reservation locales. Among other reform-minded measures, it would also mandate that potential gaming tribes reach a Memorandum of Understanding with county governments on the mitigation of casino impact on local infrastructure and the environment.

The requirement of an MOU with counties has been criticized as a compromise of tribal sovereignty, a theme repeated on the House floor by Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., who managed the floor time allotted to Democrats for debate against the bill, House Bill 4893 in the House.

“Mr. Kildee has brought up the issue of sovereignty and how we dealt with that,” responded Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Calif., chairman of the House Resources Committee and the bill’s lead sponsor. “And we changed the bill that we’re actually voting on today substantially from that original draft. The original draft did give cities a veto power, in essence, over trust lands. And many members of the committee [House Resources] and different attorneys that we talked to felt that that would not stand up to a court challenge. And we took that out. But what we did do ... we gave local cities, counties, the ability to negotiate with the tribes to come up with a memorandum of understanding, so that they have the ability to make sure that if there’s a major new [Indian casino] development that’s going to happen within their community, that they’re held harmless, that they have some input into that project going forward, that sewer and water and transportation needs and other things – just like if it was a private developer going in – would be met. And that’s the requirement that we put in that somehow is now being deciphered as threatening sovereignty.

“I’ll tell you though, and I want to make this perfectly clear, if you don’t – if you care about sovereignty of our Native American tribes in this country, then you’d better support this bill. Because if we do not further regulate the expansion of off-reservation casinos, we will have an attempt made within this Congress to threaten that sovereignty. And we know that that’s going to happen because we’ve seen it over the last few years.”

Pombo wasn’t speaking in generalities, according to senior Hill staff. He brought the bill to the floor under suspension of the rules for specific reasons. One of the most important among them was to spare tribes a spate of hostile amendments that congressional members (among them Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.; Charles Dent, R-Pa.; and Frank Wolf, R-Va.) are poised to offer. Pombo has used his position as chairman of House Resources, the committee of jurisdiction over most Indian-specific issues in the House, to block hostile amendments and other measures. With the failure, for now at least, of his bill against off-reservation gaming, Pombo doesn’t have as much leverage to hold off those amendments. They could be offered if the bill is brought up under ordinary rules, or they could be attached to separate bills in the “lame duck” session of Congress that has been agreed to for November, following midterm elections.