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Back in June, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) anted up for poker fans by dropping a bill to exempt online players from the Internet gambling ban.

A month later, he hit the jackpot.

The Poker Players Alliance, the lobbying group for the game, hosted a big-bucks fundraiser for Wexler at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. The event, held at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino, netted the Congressman at least $50,600 in personal contributions from grateful poker players — and as much as $114,000, according to a review of federal election records. (Only some of the contributors that day listed “professional poker player,” or some variation thereof, as their official occupation). [IMGCAP(1)]

“These poker players make their living on this, and this is something they’re very supportive of,” Wexler spokesman Josh Rogin said. “So the Congressman is thankful they’re supporting his efforts and his campaign for re-election.”

Both Rogin and John Pappas, a lobbyist for the alliance, said the fundraiser was scheduled after Wexler introduced the bill. But Pappas denied it was a “thank you” event.

Instead, he said, it was an opportunity to show Wexler “the greatest spectacle in poker — poker’s Mecca.”

The annual tournament lasts six weeks, but Wexler arrived July 12, four days into the “Main Event,” the final round in which players pony up $10,000 to compete for a $12 million purse. Tournament Commissioner Jeffrey Pollock took the rare step of interrupting play that day to allow Wexler to address the crowd and briefly discuss his bill — to a rousing round of applause, Pappas said.

The measure would exempt “games of skill” from the online gambling ban Republicans passed last year. In addition to poker, it would carve out gambling over online chess and mah-jongg, an especially popular game in Wexler’s Florida district.

The bill is helping Wexler win friends outside of Las Vegas as well. Former Republican Sen. Al D’Amato (N.Y.), another lobbyist for the Poker Players Alliance, cut Wexler a $2,000 check in August.

And if the money is not talking loudly enough, the Poker Players Alliance has scheduled a “fly-in” next week with poker players descending on Capitol Hill. Professional poker pros including Chris Moneymaker, Annie Duke, Howard Lederer and others will meet with lawmakers on the House Judiciary and Financial Services committees and host events on Oct. 23 and 24.

What, No Beignets? Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin will pour coffee for the press on Wednesday morning to press their case for an extra $3.3 billion in housing assistance for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. And they plan to hit up the Congressional Black Caucus, the House Democratic Caucus, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and anyone else they think might help.

The Blanco/Nagin visit is a short-time thing. For longer-term representation in D.C., the Louisiana Recovery Authority has hired the Podesta Group to lobby on the state’s behalf, though LRA Director Andy Kopplin notes that they are not using state money for this purpose. The lobbying effort is being funded by a private nonprofit that is using charitable donations to support the LRA’s work.

Kopplin said the state is running out of money for its “Road Home” program because FEMA underestimated the number of homes that were damaged, and the Bush administration asked the state to base its original request on FEMA estimates. Kopplin said the original $7.5 billion Road Home appropriation request was based on an estimate of 120,000 eligible homes; the state now expects that number to be closer to 160,000.

The state planned to insert the request into the next Iraq War supplemental, but since that bill is now unlikely to move before next year, Pelican State officials are trying to get Congress to move a separate funding package this year before December or January, when Louisiana expects the program to run out of money,

Podesta Group registered June 1 to lobby on behalf of David R. Voelker, a member of the LRA Support Foundation, and reported being paid $20,000 through June 30. In 2006, Voelker paid The Washington Group $160,000 to lobby for Gulf Coast recovery money.

A Republican leadership source said that with President Bush nearing a showdown with House Democrats over spending bills, “I have a hard time seeing us swallowing an extra $3 billion … cut out of whole cloth.”

Busing Penguins. Spurred by a comprehensive energy bill that could pass as early as this year, the American Bus Association has launched a campaign to make sure any eventual legislation still includes its partial exemption on the diesel fuel tax.

To do so, the trade group, which represents “motorcoaches,” the intercity vehicles the ABA says are the most fuel-efficient way to travel, has launched an ad campaign that features — the penguin.

“Save a Penguin. Take a Motorcoach.” reads one print advertisement. And if the cause and effect is not perfectly clear, the ABA provides some helpful guidance on the subject:

“By supporting motorcoach transportation, which gets 184 passenger miles per gallon and is the most fuel-efficient way to travel, you might just help save an ice cap or two,” according to the ad, which features a long line of Photoshopped penguins queuing up on the front lawn of the Capitol waiting to board an intercity bus.

The Bus Association represents about a quarter of the country’s bus operators, most of whom are small businesses with 10 or fewer coaches. Bus operators now pay 7.3 cents per gallon in diesel fuel taxes; a 17 cents per gallon exemption from the standard 24.3 cent-tax, says spokesman Eron Shosteck.

Game Day. If you want to cozy up to Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) you might consider painting your face orange and heading to Knoxville, Tenn., on Oct. 27.

Shuler, a former pro-football player who was once quarterback for the University of Tennessee, has invited lobbyists and other campaign donors to watch his Volunteers take on the South Carolina Gamecocks for $2,500, to benefit his reelection coffers of course.

Shuler’s not the only college football fan who likes fundraisers with his game.

Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), who graduated from Penn State University, is planning a tailgate party fundraiser also on Oct. 27 when his team takes on Ohio State University.

“He’s a huge Big 10 fan,” Feeney’s spokeswoman Pepper Pennington said. To add a twist to the game day, Feeney’s chief of staff Tonnie Wybensinger, who also is going to the game, will be rooting for her alma mater, Ohio State, Pennington said. “It’s a fun matchup, a great rivalry,” she added.

K Street Moves. FD Dittus has added Paul Carothers, a former lobbyist for Kraft Foods, as leader of its food, health and nutrition practice. The firm has also added Chris Kelley Cimko, formerly with ICF International, as head of its public affairs practice.

T.R. Goldman and Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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