H.R. 312 Casino Bill Passes in U.S. House of Representatives
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe received a major legislative boon when the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 312 by a 275-146 margin on Wednesday. Earlier in the week, President Donald Trump tweeted his opposition to H.R. 312, which would give the Mashpee Wampanoag access to 321 acres of land for a casino.
The Massachusetts tribe wants the land so it can build the First Light Casino in the city on Taunton. The First Light Casino would be the third Massachusetts land-based casino, which voters approved in a statewide election in 2011.
The vote approved up to three gaming licenses and led to the building of Encore Boston Harbor and MGM Springfield. For years, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission held the third casino license in reserve — though it rejected a plan by Rush Street Gaming for a casino Brockton.
The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, though it is the Indian tribe depicted in Thanksgiving dinner stories about the Pilgrims, never gained federal recognition. The 1988 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act stated Native American tribes need to have had their sovereignty established by 1933 in order to build a tribal casino with a state/tribe gaming compact.
Because the Mashpee Wampanoag do not qualify under those terms, they must pursue a commercial casino license. It takes an act of the US Congress to make such a casino legal, instead of going the route of the US Department of the Interior’s Indian Affairs Bureau.
Bill Keating’s Support
Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass), who sponsored the bill in the House, said the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe needs the First Light Casino to survive. Rep. Keating said in a House speech, “This is the tribe of the first Thanksgiving, the very tribe that is integral to our founding story” as a nation.
Keating added, “To deny them the right to their land is an absolute disgrace.”
The tribe claims its need casino revenues to help tribal members and remain a cohesive Native American band. Without funds similar to over 250 other Indian tribes across the land (which own casinos), the Mashpee Wampanoag people will fade into obscurity.
Joe Kennedy Supports HR 312
Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass) made a similar argument. Kennedy, whose district includes Taunton, said voting “Yes” on HR 312 is “a matter of right and wrong, of correcting a historical injustice that has been perpetrated for far too long.”
The U.S. Department of the Interior under Ryan Zinke worked against the First Light Casino proposal. Zinke’s staff cited an earlier court opinion which suggested the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe should not pursue a commercial casino, but instead a tribal casino via the Indian Affairs Bureau.
That path was blocked by the Interior Department, prompting attempts by the Massachusetts congressional delegation to seek an alternative. Kennedy said, “This overrules the court decision. The last I checked, that is what Congress does. We write laws.”
Donald Trump Opposes HR 312
President Trump justified his opposition by claiming to support Native American tribal ambitions. He called the bill “unfair”, because he contends it “doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!” The president might be referring to the fact H.R. 312 gives the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe special license to build a commercial casino.
Without its companion bill, H.R. 374, that might be the case. Opponents of the bill call it “reservation shopping” by the tribe. H.R. 374 states that all Native American tribes would have the right to apply for commercial casino lands.
Donald Trump cited a second reason for opposing the bill: it had the support of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). Though Elizabeth Warren did not sponsor the bill, she is a part of the Massachusetts delegation and likely would vote for it in a Senate vote.
Matt Schlaap’s Role in Casino Flap
Opponents of the president quickly pointed out that a close ally of President Trump works for the Mashpee Wampanoag’s potential business rival: Twin Rivers Casino in Rhode Island. Twin Rivers hired the lobbying firm of Matt Schlaap, head of CPAC, to lobby congress and the White House on its behalf earlier this year.
That lobbying relationship does not directly involve the First Light Casino, but Schlaap made his opinion known on the issue. An hour before Donald Trump’s tweets, Schlaap called for H.R. 312 to be defeated in congress — and also cited Elizabeth Warren’s support for the bill.
Will H.R. 312 Pass in the Senate?
H.R. 312 looks like it might pass in the U.S. Senate, but it almost certainly would be vetoed by President Trump. The 275-146 vote in the House of Representatives currently has a 235-197 advantage for the Democrats (with 3 vacant seats).
The margin shows that 40 Republicans supported the bill, while another 11 abstained from voting. Votes in the House and the Senate do not always coincide, but only 4 Republicans senators would need to cross the aisle to vote HR 312 through.
That would send the bill to the White House. Unless Donald Trump’s opposition is a bluff — and the bill hardly carries any weighty political consequences — the president would veto the bill. Thus, the victory is meaningful for the Mashee Wampanoag Tribe as a sign of support, but it’s unlikely to end in the First Light Casino being built. That might have to wait for another POTUS, whether he or she is a Republican or a Democrat.