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E.J. Dionne Jr.

Rolling the Dice on a GOP Rift

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005; Page A23

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's ethics troubles threaten more than his own political future. They have the potential to create a much wider scandal over lobbying on the Indian gambling issue and to open a rift among socially conservative Republicans.

For now much of the public attention focuses on DeLay's connections with lobbyist Jack Abramoff's efforts to protect Indian gambling interests. The Post reported on Saturday that DeLay, a Texas Republican, took a trip to Britain in 2000 that was largely financed by two of Abramoff's clients, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and eLottery Inc.

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Republicans are alarmed that the flow of the news is against DeLay. Democrats are using the reports to challenge new rules pushed through by the House Republican leadership that make it harder to investigate and discipline ethics lapses by members of Congress. The Democrats' strategy will be to put pressure on moderate Republicans to break with DeLay and enact tougher standards.

But the larger controversy lies beneath the surface. It involves a collision between the business interests of Republican lobbyists and the moral commitments of the party's large wing of social conservatives who strongly oppose the spread of gambling.

Perhaps the most bizarre example of this contradiction was detailed by Post reporter Susan Schmidt. When one Louisiana tribe, the Jena Band of Choctaws, won initial approval of a casino three years ago, another tribe, the Louisiana Coushattas, hired Abramoff to block the potential competition. Abramoff and an associate in turn paid $4 million to Ralph Reed, a Republican consultant and evangelical leader, to organize local anti-gambling sentiment against the Jenas. To get the job done, Reed worked with his fellow evangelical James Dobson.

The result: Reed, a public opponent of the spread of casinos, profited from a battle between Indian gambling interests. Reed has insisted that in opposing one casino group, he was being consistent with his public position. He also says he didn't know that his fees came from gambling proceeds, though he does acknowledge that he knew of Abramoff's connection to the tribes.

Even before the rise of the Native American casinos, the gambling issue regularly gave birth to strange-bedfellows politics. Opponents of the proliferation of casinos have included some of the most liberal Democrats and some of the most conservative Republicans. Liberals see gambling interests as preying on the less well-to-do, and they argue that the growing dependence of state and local governments on revenue connected to gambling is a cop-out by politicians unwilling to finance government programs through general tax increases.

Social conservatives also speak of gambling as "a tax on the poor," but their core objection is the old-fashioned moral assertion that it is simply wrong. And both liberal and conservative gambling foes have argued that the spread of casinos has a corrupting effect on politics because so much money is at stake.

Supporters of legal gambling are an equally motley crew. Economically libertarian Republicans who oppose state regulation of businesses are often allied with Democrats who are skeptical of state regulation of personal behavior. The rise of Indian casinos gave the debate a multicultural twist, with allies of Indian gambling arguing that a new industry was creating opportunity for previously impoverished tribes. Democrats, with their long ties to Native American interests, often backed the tribes.

Abramoff's innovation -- and the source of his profits -- was to argue successfully with many tribes that they needed Republican and conservative allies now that Republicans were dominant in Washington. But in doing so, Abramoff was fighting some of the strongest social conservatives in Congress, notably Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican whose principled opposition to the spread of gambling has been one of his central causes.

Shortly after the 2000 election was settled, Wolf issued a strong and prophetic letter urging reform in the regulation of Indian gambling. Wolf, joined by other lawmakers, criticized "a tainted recognition process, massive revenue windfalls for the gambling industry and a few well-connected individuals, and worst of all, continuing poverty for most Native Americans."

Last year Wolf specifically urged the Justice Department to investigate whether the Indian tribes Abramoff represented were the victims of fraud.

Wolf has not commented on DeLay, an ally on many issues and a friend. But Wolf's passion about gambling is shared by many social conservatives who will no doubt find it surprising that some of those they once saw as allies are profiting from an industry they see as corrupt. This new scandal is thus a test of conviction for Republican moralists who were right to see that the spread of casinos could have untoward consequences for politics.

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