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Democrats pull Mashpee Wampanoag bill after Trump tweets opposition

Steven Senne/Associated Press/Associated Press

President Trump weighed in against the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe’s plan to build a $1 billion casino in Taunton on Wednesday, and shortly afterward Democrats pulled a bill from the House floor that would have allowed the controversial project to move forward.

The legislation would protect the federal designation of Wampanoag parcels held in trust by the US government as reservation land, which is required for opening a tribal casino.

Last year, an official with the Bureau of Indian Affairs determined that the tribe failed to meet certain federal requirements for reservation status, but the legislation pending in Congress would make that finding moot.

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In a morning tweet, Trump said that “Republicans shouldn’t vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!”

Messages left with Warren’s Senate office and presidential campaign were not immediately returned. The Massachusetts Democrat had previously cosponsored a Senate version of the proposal.

After Trump’s tweet, the bill was pulled from the House floor. It had been slated to be considered under a fast-track provision that requires a two-thirds majority to pass, meaning it would need Republican support.

Representative William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat from Bourne who sponsored the bill, suggested Trump’s opposition to the proposal was rooted in his connection to a lobbyist for a company that owns two casinos in Rhode Island.

The Associated Press reported that a lobbying firm cofounded by Matt Schlapp, a prominent Trump supporter and chairman of 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 confirms that Schlapp’s firm received $30,000 from Twin River for lobbying during the first quarter of this year.

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Schlapp is the husband of White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp.

Keating said Trump “signed an identical bill last year” about a tribe in Virginia.

“So why tweet against a bill recognizing the tribe of first Thanksgiving?” Keating asked on Twitter. “Because of his well-documented alliance with the RI casino lobbyist. A weak attempt to hide corrupt influence in a racist tweet.”

Twin River said in a statement that the legislation “conflicts with federal district court and U.S. Department of Interior decisions as well as precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

“Clearly, the legislation appears to be an effort to circumvent the courts and U.S. Department of the Interior, which have jurisdiction over these matters,,” the company said.

In a phone interview, Keating said he was confident the bill would be passed “sooner versus later.”

“It will follow the course that is routinely taken by other, bipartisan bills,” he said.

He said he found Trump’s opposition “disturbing,” saying the issue “affects thousands of individuals and a tribe that has gone through one injustice after another.”

“We had a chance to be on the right side of history as a Congress,” he said.

That the proposal was “sidetracked by something as despicable as out-and-out lobbying” was disappointing, he said.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe could not immediately be reached for comment.

Earlier this month, the tribe applauded a House committee’s vote to move the bill forward out of that committee, with tribe chairman Cedric Cromwell saying the action provided “an incredible lift for my people.”

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Last year, Tara Sweeney, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said she found that the tribe was not “under federal jurisdiction” at the time of a landmark 1934 law, so it does not satisfy a requirement of a federal definition of “Indian.”

Following that decision, the future of the First Light Resort and Casino has continued to be stuck in limbo after years of stops and starts. The casino’s financial backer, Malaysian gambling outfit Genting, booked an impairment loss of more than $400 million.

The tribe, which has about 2,700 members, had previously gained federal acknowledgment in 2007 and had asked the federal government to acquire about 320 acres in Mashpee and Taunton in trust for its benefit. If the tribe cannot retain control of such lands, it will be unable to build the resort casino there.

The land lies not far from where the Wampanoag greeted the Pilgrims who founded Plymouth Colony and later joined them in the first Thanksgiving.

According to the tribe, the United States has not “disestablished” an Indian reservation for more than 50 years.

“The threat to the Tribe’s reservation has caused enormous hardship to the Tribe and its members, has threatened its funding, caused it to incur crushing debt, and forced it to close programs and lay off employees,” said the tribe in a statement earlier this month.


Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox and Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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