RENO -- The return to Republican control of the Senate could make it more difficult for the gambling industry to beat back a move to ban betting on college sports, a top lobbyist said.
The change in Congress means Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the leader of the effort to end legalized betting on NCAA sports at Nevada casinos, will resume chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee.
At the same time, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the most influential defender of sports wagering, will relinquish his role as majority whip for the less powerful position of minority whip.
Reid and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., lined up enough votes last year to stall McCain's bill in the Commerce Committee on a 10-10 vote.
"The first time the Senate Commerce Committee voted on this three or four years ago the vote was 22-1 in favor. So we've made a lot of progress on it," said Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., the former head of the Republican National Committee who now lobbies Congress for casinos as the president of the American Gaming Association.
Fahrenkopf said the industry will miss Reid serving as assistant majority leader.
"He had a great deal of say over which bills moved to the floor," Fahrenkopf said in an interview this week at Nevada's 19th annual Governor's Conference on Tourism.
Fahrenkopf said he intends to meet with McCain in the coming weeks and expects him to reintroduce his bill in the next Congress.
Aides to McCain indicated he is likely to reintroduce the same bill he pushed last year, but won't decide until Congress reconvenes in January.
"The senator feels very strongly about this issue and will continue to fight to ban gambling on amateur sports," Senate Commerce Committee spokeswoman Pia Pialorsi said Thursday.
A number of coaches, including South Carolina football coach Lou Holtz and Kentucky basketball coach Tubby Smith, have joined the NCAA in urging Congress to outlaw college betting to keep gamblers from influencing young athletes to throw games.
Fahrenkopf said McCain's proposal enjoys its strongest support from an unusual alliance of conservatives and liberals.
"It's a strange marriage of the extreme right and the extreme left," he said in a speech Wednesday to the tourism conference in Reno.
"In the Republican Party, it tends to be the extreme right who view gaming as a sin and therefore it is their duty to enact legislation to protect people from dying and going to hell and living eternity with the devil," he said.
"In the Democratic Party, its the extreme left wing, who don't trust people to be able to spend their own money and make decisions about their own money and that government must be this maternalistic entity to protect them from themselves."
Fahrenkopf said what might help Nevada's cause is a change of leadership at the NCAA, including the upcoming retirement of President Cedric Dempsey, to be succeeded in January by Indiana President Myles Brand.
"Very candidly, the people who were pushing this hard at the NCAA are gone," he told The Associated Press.
"Secondly, the lobbying team in Washington D.C. has totally changed for the NCAA. So they could have a different view. It's too early to tell," he said.
NCAA officials did not immediately return telephone messages left Thursday at their headquarters in Indianapolis.
Fahrenkopf said ending betting on college sports in Nevada casinos won't address what the NCAA and McCain say is their major concern -- gambling on college campuses.
"From their position, I think they just think betting on athletics is morally wrong. But doing away with Nevada is not going to solve the problem at all. It's just going to drive it underground," he said.
Law enforcement agencies estimate Americans bet $380 billion a year on sports, but "less than 1 percent is legally bet here in the state of Nevada where it is regulated, controlled and taxed," he said.
The NCAA acknowledged every U.S. college campus "has illegal bookies on it -- student bookies taking illegal bets on NCAA events," Fahrenkopf said.
"And we know there are approximately 1,500 Web sites now on any student's computer where they can get the odds and place bets offshore," he said.
"But for some reason, he has it in his mind that if the legal betting that takes place only in Nevada -- where you have to be 21 years of age and physically present in the state to place a bet -- that if that was eliminated, somehow that is going to impact illegal betting on campuses."