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Tony Batt

McCain Could Lead Gambling Panel

5 March 2004

WASHINGTON -- The new chairman of the Senate panel overseeing Indian gambling could be Sen. John McCain, who is leading the charge for hearings into a lobbyist's multimillion-dollar contracts with tribes operating casinos.

The Arizona Republican said Thursday he is in line for the chairmanship but does not know if he will take over for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.

Campbell, 70, announced Wednesday he will not seek re-election this year to a third term. A Northern Cheyenne tribal chief, Campbell has been considered a reliable ally for gambling tribes.

Any changes on the committee would happen in January when a new Congress convenes.

Even if he doesn't become chairman, McCain said the committee will have hearings about superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, who resigned under pressure Wednesday from his law firm in Washington.

"I've already talked to Senator Campbell about (the hearings), and we're in perfect agreement," McCain said.

Abramoff and Michael Scanlon, a former spokesman for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, reportedly received more than $45 million in the past three years from four tribes for lobbying and public affairs work.

The tribes include the Louisiana Coushattas, Michigan's Saginaw Chippewas, the Agua Caliente of California and the Mississippi Choctaws.

McCain didn't say when the hearings may occur, but the committee reportedly already has begun its investigation.

A spokesman for the National Indian Gaming Association said tribes aren't worried about the committee's hearings on Abramoff.

Although the association was surprised and disappointed to hear Campbell is leaving, the spokesman said, tribes are comfortable with the notion of McCain becoming the committee chairman.

McCain served as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee once before from 1995 through 1997.

McCain's term as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee expires at the end of this year. He is next in line to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2006.

If McCain decides not to accept the Indian affairs chairmanship, Sen. Craig Thomas, R-Wyo., is waiting in the wings as a possible replacement.

"We'll have to wait and see what Senator McCain does, but Senator Thomas would of course be interested in becoming chairman," said Thomas spokeswoman Carrie Sloan.

Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada is one of the committee's senior Democrats.

"I work well with each of the Republicans on the committee," Reid said in a statement. "Indian gaming will always be an issue I watch very carefully."