House approves bill to aid casino bid by Massachusetts tribe

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks during a campaign stop, Saturday, May 11, 2019, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
President Donald Trump speaks at the 38th Annual National Peace Officers Memorial Service on the West Lawn of the Capitol Building, Wednesday, May 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

WASHINGTON — The House on Wednesday approved a bill reaffirming the right of a Massachusetts tribe to hold land in trust, a crucial step to building a $1 billion casino.

The bill, approved 275-146, would allow the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe to hold 321 acres of reservation land in trust, despite a decision by the Trump administration that threatens its control. The Interior Department said last year that the tribe doesn't qualify to place the land in trust because it wasn't under federal jurisdiction when the Indian Reorganization Act passed in 1934.

The dispute was thrust into the national spotlight last week after President Donald Trump criticized the bill on Twitter and urged Republicans to oppose it.

Trump called the legislation a "special-interest casino bill" backed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate. He called it unfair and said it "doesn't treat Native Americans equally!"

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., said the measure was needed to ensure the survival of the tribe, which signed a treaty with the Plymouth colonists and shared a meal commemorated as the first Thanksgiving.

Keating contended that Trump opposes the bill because of "his well-documented alliance" with a lobbyist for two Rhode Island casinos that would compete with one planned by the Mashpee Wampanoag.

"This is the tribe of the first Thanksgiving, the very tribe that is integral to our founding story" as a nation, Keating said. "To deny them the right to their land is an absolute disgrace."

He said that without the reservation land, the Mashpee Wampanoag would essentially become a second-class tribe with no ability to self-govern or provide essential services such as housing and education.

The bill now heads to the Senate.

Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump supporter and chairman of the American Conservative Union, has publicly criticized the legislation and linked it to Warren, a frequent Trump foil. Warren co-sponsored a Senate version of the tribal bill in the last Congress but has not committed on the current effort.

Schlapp, who is married to White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp, represents Twin River Management Group, a private company that owns two casinos in Rhode Island. Twin River has paid Schlapp's firm, Cove Strategies, $30,000 for its work so far this year, federal records show.

Another Trump-linked firm, Black Diamond Strategies, also received $30,000 from Twin River to lobby the House on the tribal bill. Doug Davenport, a lobbyist working on Twin River's behalf, was a senior adviser to Trump's 2016 campaign.

Representatives of Warren's Senate office and campaign declined to comment Wednesday.

Just two Democrats joined 144 Republicans in opposing the bill, which was supported by 228 Democrats and 47 Republicans.

Both Democrats who opposed the bill are from Rhode Island. They said the measure amounted to "reservation shopping" by allowing the tribe to build a casino in Taunton, Massachusetts, nearly 50 miles from its ancestral home on Cape Cod.

Approval of the bill could "open the flood gates" to other tribes nationwide hiring big-money lobbyists to push for off-reservation casinos, said Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. He called that possibility "disastrous."

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, disputed that. He said the bill was "a deeply honorable legislative effort ... to correct the significant wrongs that have been perpetrated against our tribe over the years, and to ensure that our people have a chance to be self-sufficient."

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