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In House chamber, table games a tough sell

HARRISBURG - Inside the ornate rotunda of the Capitol yesterday, a student choir stood on white marble steps behind a massive Christmas tree, its voices filling the dome with verses of "Joy to the World."

HARRISBURG - Inside the ornate rotunda of the Capitol yesterday, a student choir stood on white marble steps behind a massive Christmas tree, its voices filling the dome with verses of "Joy to the World."

Fourth graders posed for a class photo while a busload of senior citizens from Washington County made its way to the gallery of the House chamber.

There, lawmakers were giving a long, sentimental farewell to Rep. Craig A. Dally (R., Northampton), who was to become a county judge.

At 12:54 p.m., just before recessing for an hour, they had a last item of business: passing a resolution to make January "Learn a Snow Sport" month.

Nowhere was there any hint that Gov. Rendell's plan to plug a $250 million hole in the budget with table-game revenues hung by a thread.

On Monday, after six hours of floor debate, an amendment to allow for table games at slots casinos had passed by nearly the slimmest of margins: 97-95.

Yesterday, the measure needed to face another round of votes before moving to the Senate for consideration.

But would it pass this time around?

Starting in the late afternoon, lawmakers spent five hours making one last attempt to either shore up the gaming bill or take it down.

They stood before a four-story mural of Pennsylvania luminaries such as William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, and Stephen Girard to argue whether revenue from roulette, blackjack, and poker would save the commonwealth.

For much of the afternoon, the century-old House chamber, with its gold-leaf carvings and lattice of beams, felt like the interior of a gilded cage.

Susan Paddock of Gettysburg watched from the visitors' gallery with six neighbors. She wore a sweatshirt that read "No Casino Gettysburg."

Paddock and her anti-casino allies spent the morning going from office to office of as many lawmakers as possible. She said that if the bill passed and the state added another casino license for a resort property, her group wanted to make sure there would never be a casino anywhere near the national battlefield.

"We'd like to short-circuit that," she said confidently.

Opponents of the 420-page bill showed more of a willingness to get up and speak than supporters.

At times, it got nasty.

The audio on Rep. Curt Schroder, a Republican from Chester County on the Gaming Oversight Committee, was cut off when he accused the House speaker "of putting the screws. . ." on the bill's opponents by limiting debate on Monday.

Members saw the gaming issue as either a revenue-generator that would bring more jobs and tax relief to the commonwealth or, as Rep. Paul Clymer, a Bucks County Republican said, the cause "of more human carnage" in the form of gambling addiction and social woes.

Barely heard over the din, Clymer charged that the bill showed how casino lobbyists "had their tentacles in the halls of government."

Six Philadelphia Democrats, led by State Reps. Michael H. O'Brien and W. Curtis Thomas, voted against the bill on Monday.

"There's a lot of arm-twisting going on in there," said O'Brien.

Moments earlier, O'Brien had stood to take his stand against the bill. He quoted a letter from the United Methodist Church that said the legislation, if passed, "will add to the public's low regard of members of the General Assembly."

O'Brien said he, Thomas, and Rep. Bill Keller (D., Phila.) are members of the gaming oversight committee and had supported a Senate version of the bill voted out of committee on Oct. 2.

But between then and now, O'Brien said, the bill morphed into something quite different, and included measures that were deal-breakers for him. He said he could not approve tax abatements for Philadelphia casinos or a one-year extension for Foxwoods to build its project.

Right before the vote, O'Brien counted only 100 votes in favor of the bill - 102 were needed for the bill to move to the Senate.

Heading back into the hall, O'Brien said, "It's dead."

But he was wrong.

It got one more than it needed.