A roulette wheel in the Casino of the Wind at Mohegan Sun Courtesy of Mohegan Sun
A roulette wheel in the Casino of the Wind at Mohegan Sun
A roulette wheel in the Casino of the Wind at Mohegan Sun Courtesy of Mohegan Sun

Washington – MGM Resorts International’s efforts to block the establishment of a third casino run by Connecticut’s gaming tribes has stalled on Capitol Hill, leaving the future of the effort in doubt.

Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., tried to amend the Senate National Defense Authorization Act by including a provision that would bar Indian gaming off tribal lands.

He also tried to introduce an amendment that would have required the Bureau of Indian Affairs to prepare a report on certain commercial gaming projects sought by tribes.

Connecticut’s senators have blocked both of Heller’s plans. The Nevada senator now says he’s not sure what his next step will be to win approval for legislation that he says “makes sense” for Nevada.

“There has to be a vehicle to do so, and I haven’t seen a vehicle at this point,” Heller said.

Promoted by MGM and supported by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Heller’s efforts are aimed at stopping the construction of a proposed third casino in Connecticut by a joint venture between the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes.

The tribes do not have legislative permission to build a third casino in Connecticut, but have been allowed to seek local support for a casino site. Although a site has not been chosen, MGM believes it would compete with the Las Vegas-based company’s plans to open a gaming facility in Springfield, Mass. The tribes already run casinos – the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort – on tribal lands in Connecticut.

To Connecticut’s U.S. senators, the move by their colleagues is a slap at the state’s  sovereignty.

“This is a Connecticut issue that should be decided in Connecticut,” said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said Heller’s plan is “fundamentally misguided.”

“I’m hoping he will abandon this effort,” Blumenthal said.

The Connecticut senators have been able to block consideration of  Heller’s amendment because that would require “unanimous consent” of all 100 senators.

“He will never receive unanimous consent as long as I’m a senator,” Blumenthal said.

Potential Maneuvers

There is a chance Reid could use his clout to slip the amendment into House and Senate negotiations over a final NDAA bill, or some other bill that goes to a House-Senate conference. But Congress is about to go on a two-month break so those possibilities aren’t imminent.

The MGM amendment also could be slipped into a massive omnibus spending bill that Congress is likely to debate and vote on in a lame duck session of Congress after the elections. Slipping the amendment into a final bill would also save its sponsors the need – and trouble—of getting the legislation through the U.S. House of Representatives.

But for now, there is not much MGM can do – at least not on Capitol Hill.

Heller acknowledged the session is ticking toward a close.

“There isn’t much time,” he said.

MGM did not have an immediate response to calls for comment.

Twenty-eight states host Indian gaming operations and the tribes involved are pushing back on Heller’s legislation.

“There are numerous examples of tribes engaging in commercial economic development activities in a variety of industries, and there is absolutely no basis to single out tribes and prevent them from continuing to engage in economic development both on and off their reservations land,” said a letter from Ernest Stevens Jr., head of the National Indian Gaming Association, to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. “It would be unprecedented for Congress to limit these opportunities for tribal governments”

The Mashantucket Pequots and Mohegans also are lobbying against it.

“This is a company willing to spend huge sums of money to get what it wants,” said Andrew Doba, a lobbyist for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan joint venture, of MGM. “Its actions in Connecticut – and now Washington – make it clear they are willing to do anything to stop this project.  And if they’re successful, there will be more people in Connecticut standing in the unemployment line.”

Losing in court too

Although MGM has called the Heller amendment, the “Connecticut amendment,” its impact also would be felt in other states.

Feinstein is supporting the amendment because California tribes are taking lands near urban areas into trust to build new casinos and, with 65 gaming facilities already established in the state, Feinstein said there is no need for more.

“I’ve watched the buses come in” on the day government assistance checks come, she said, “with poor people who spend all of their money in the casinos.”

Feinstein said there may be an effort to put the Heller amendment on legislation considered by the  Senate Indian Affairs Committee that aims to clarify that the Bureau of Indian Affairs has authority to take land into trust for tribes that received recognition after 1934, the year trust legislation became law.

But that legislation has not moved forward for years and isn’t expected to in this Congress.

MGM also tried to sue the state of Connecticut, arguing that allowing the establishment of an Indian casino outside tribal land violates federal laws designed to protect commercial competition.

“MGM is ready, willing, and able to compete for the opportunity to develop a commercial casino gaming facility in Connecticut, but is excluded … from competing for this opportunity,” reads the company’s lawsuit.

A federal court dismissed MGM’s lawsuit, but the company has requested an expedited appeal of that decision. The company says it will file its legal briefs in September.

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Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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