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College Bet Ban Gains Steam

A bill to outlaw betting on college sports advanced through Congress on Wednesday, winning approval in the House Judiciary Committee.

The 19-9 vote approved the measure to ban betting on amateur sports, a type of gambling practiced only in Nevada. The Senate Commerce Committee approved similar legislation in April.

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., whose district includes Las Vegas, said opponents will now turn their efforts to keeping the bill from reaching the floor in the final weeks of the 106th Congress.

Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the House GOP conference chairman, said Wednesday he still does not think the bill will get passed this year. But the measure is proving stronger than many predicted.

When it was introduced in January, some supporters acknowledged passage was unlikely. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona gave the bill momentum by adopting it as a cause soon after abandoning his presidential campaign, and the NCAA enlisted prominent college coaches.

Retired North Carolina coach Dean Smith, college basketball's career victory leader, visited Capitol Hill on Tuesday to push for the bill.

The measure has bipartisan sponsors in both chambers but is drawing much of its key support from Republicans. Backers say the integrity of amateur sports is at stake.

"This is a chance for Congress, in the last hours of this session, to do something good for a cause many Americans really love and appreciate, and that's college sports," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a sponsor of the bill and its chief proponent on the Judiciary Committee.

Opponents of the measure say almost all of the gambling on college sports 98 percent occurs illegally, outside the reach of Nevada casinos.

Frank Fahrenkopf Jr., who lobbies for casinos as president of the American Gaming Association, called the bill "a cosmetic response to serious campus gambling problems."

The committee voted down a substitute bill offered by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., that would have created an Amateur Sports Illegal Gambling Task Force and doubled penalties for illegal betting on sports.

The committee debated another amendment offered by Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., to expand the proposed ban to outlaw all sports betting, as requested by professional baseball, basketball, football and hockey.

But Hutchinson withdrew the amendment at the request of Graham, who said he supported the idea but did not want to complicate the committee vote.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said this week that Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi assured the bill's supporters they will get a chance this year to muster 60 votes to break a filibuster by Nevada senators.

Graham's spokesman, Kevin Bishop, said House supporters of the bill have been given no such promise that a vote will be held this year.

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