Could this be the beginning of a beautiful friendship? Senators Harry Reid and Jon Kyl wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder that, on the surface, seems awful for Internet poker. Reading between the lines, however, it may be the best sign yet that federally licensed and regulated online poker will happen.
The letter, dated July 14 and published on the Las Vegas Sun website, chastises the Department of Justice for allowing Internet poker sites to operate without repercussions prior to Black Friday and urges the DOJ to aggressively and consistently pursue those offering illegal Internet gambling in the United States. Reid and Kyl also ask Holder to reiterate the DOJ's "longstanding position" that federal law prohibits gambling over the Internet, including intrastate gambling.
There's little good that can be taken out of the content of the letter. Yet, the indication that two of the most powerful Senators from across party lines are working together on the issue of Internet gambling is promising.
At the end of last year, Reid, the Senate Majority Leader from Nevada, pushed to get language that would have licensed and regulated online poker attached to must-pass legislation during the lame-duck session of Congress. Kyl, the Republican Senate Minority Whip from Arizona, predictably fought against the addition and won out. Kyl has fought against Internet gambling for more than a dozen years.
Earlier this year, Kyl wrote on his official website that he will consider efforts to legalize online poker, which he noted many believe is a game of skill, as long as they leave in place the broader proscriptions against online betting. That was the first sign that Reid and Kyl may be able to come to an arrangement that would allow for Internet poker while strengthening prohibitions against other forms of online gambling.
Now comes this letter, which serves notice that Reid and Kyl are making an attempt to get on the same page.
"I think this letter is a trust-building exercise between Sen. Reid and Sen. Kyl," said John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance. "Them working together on this letter means there is some opportunity for cooperation down the road. I think it's clear that Reid would like to have regulated Internet poker, and it's clear that Kyl would like to strengthen the UIGEA. From a players perspective the letter may be viewed as hostile, but I think it may be the start of a very beneficial relationship between Kyl and Reid on this issue."
The wording of the letter mostly seems like points Kyl would want to make, though it does make sense that Reid would not want offshore Internet poker sites allowed to operate in the U.S. because he wants the industry to belong to his Nevada-based casinos. The letter also could serve as a message to California and the District of Columbia that Internet poker is a federal issue and should not be done at an intrastate level.
Outside of the New Jersey bill that was vetoed by the governor, all other state and district bills have been so poorly constructed that most in the poker community would probably agree with that part of the letter, as long as a federal law is forthcoming. The rest of the letter is highly objectionable.
"To be clear, the PPA does not agree with everything in the letter," Pappas said. "Some of the assumptions that Internet poker is illegal are something that the PPA does not agree with. We've made those positions clear and continue to stand by that."
Pappas said he expects that Holder will respond to the letter and, given the powerful positions of the writers, will do so quickly. He said he would expect Holder to restate the DOJ's position on Internet gambling and to continue to insist that online poker is illegal. The response would be sent directly to Reid and Kyl and may not be made public.
The letter could make it more dangerous to play or keep money on sites that continue to operate in the U.S. after Black Friday.
"Playing online poker is a very precarious position until federal or state law allows it," Pappas said. "I think it's very difficult to operate an online poker room in the U.S. and will come under great scrutiny, and certainly this letter will add to that scrutiny."
If the most powerful Democrat and the second-most powerful Republican in the Senate do combine their influence to push for legislation that would license and regulate online poker while strengthening the UIGEA against other forms of Internet gambling, that could be the momentum needed to finally establish officially legal online poker in the U.S.
Although Reid and Kyl joined on this letter, Pappas thinks it would be premature to say that an alliance has been established or that a jointly sponsored legislation is imminent. The world of politics advances at a slow pace.
"I think it's a first step," Pappas said. "There were earnest negotiations between them last November and December, and those are hopefully restarting very soon."
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