The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s plans to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton took a step forward Wednesday with the passage of a bill in the US House of Representatives that would protect the federal designation of tribal parcels held in trust by the US government as reservation land.
The vote marked the latest development in a long-running saga for the tribe that has included years of stops and starts for its proposed gambling establishment.
In 2015, the US Department of the Interior granted the tribe land under an interpretation of federal law. But the following year, a federal judge ruled the government lacked authority to designate land in Taunton as a sovereign reservation for the tribe, dealing a setback to its casino plans.
And in 2018, an official at the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided the tribe had failed to meet certain federal requirements for reservation status.
Reservation land is required to open a tribal casino.
Last week, a proposal to grant the Mashpee federal recognition was pulled from the House floor following a tweet from President Trump that encouraged Republicans to vote against the proposal. Trump called it a “special interest casino” bill.
When it was finally taken up, on Wednesday, the House passed the bill by a vote of 275 to 146.
The bill, if enacted, would render the 2016 judge’s ruling a moot point, according to US Representative William Keating’s office.
Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat from Bourne who sponsored the bill, welcomed the vote.
“We weren’t sure, frankly, a week ago we’d have the strong result we did today,” Keating said Wednesday.
He said that Trump’s “engaging himself in such a narrow issue is unusual.”
“Today, the president lost in the House,” Keating said. “That’s not any kind of predictor of what’s going to happen” next.
According to Keating’s office, the 2018 reversal of federal recognition for the Wampanoag effectively stripped the tribe of its land, the first time this century a tribe had suffered “that particular injustice.”
Passing the bill was crucial to ensuring survival of the tribe, which is credited with sharing the first Thanksgiving with Plymouth colonists, Keating said in a statement.
“To deny them the right to their land is an absolute disgrace,” the statement said.
“Without land, the Mashpee Wampanoag are essentially treated as a second-class tribe with no ability to properly govern its people or provide essential services such as housing and education initiatives.”
The tribe’s chairman, Cedric Cromwell, also hailed Wednesday’s vote.
He said that the tribe “suffered so much in the past from the United States’ failure to protect our land — today the House of Representatives acted to change that history, and to help us take one step closer toward a better and more secure future for the Mashpee people.”
However, the future of the proposed First Light Resort and Casino still has question marks.
The casino’s financial backer, the Malaysian gambling outfit Genting, has booked an impairment loss of more than $400 million.
The legislation now heads to the Senate. If it passes, the president could veto the bill.
Asked about the bill’s chances in the Senate, Keating said, “I’m more hopeful — given the margin” of the House vote.
Joe Baerlein, a spokesman for Mass Gaming and Entertainment, a company that wants to build a $800 million casino in Brockton and opposes the tribe’s gambling plan, expects the legislation to ultimately fail.
“This action today is a false hope, and the reality is it’s not going to go anywhere,” he said on Wednesday.
Baerlein called the bill “a back-door approach by the Mashpee tribe,” a characterization Keating rejected.
Baerlein said that if the tribe thought it had a solid argument for reservation status, it would have appealed the 2016 court ruling.
It did not, he said, “because they know they don’t have a good case on land trust designation.”
Keating chalks up Trump’s opposition to his “well-documented alliance” with a Rhode Island casino lobbyist.
“The President tried to sink an entire tribe for overtly corrupt reasons,” he said in his statement.
According to the Associated Press, a lobbying firm cofounded by Matt Schlapp, a Trump supporter who chairs the American Conservative Union, represents Twin River Management Group, which owns Twin River Casino Hotel in Lincoln, R.I., and Tiverton Casino Hotel in Tiverton, R.I.
A federal lobbying report provided to the Globe says that Schlapp’s firm received $30,000 from Twin River for lobbying during the first quarter of this year.
Schlapp is the husband of the White House strategic communications director, Mercedes Schlapp.
There was also pushback from Rhode Island’s two congressmen, both of whom are Democrats.
Representatives David Cicilline and James Langevin wrote to their House colleagues to oppose the bill, noting the proposed tribal casino’s proximity to their state.
“Although we sympathize with the Mashpee’s situation,” they wrote, “we are opposed to H.R. 312 because it would hurt Rhode Island’s economy and it would set a horrible precedent by encouraging other tribes to ask for their own carve-out from Congress.”
The legislation would mark the first time Congress “has reversed a federal court decision that a tribe did not meet the legal standard to have land taken into trust,” according to the letter.
This story has been updated.