LAS VEGAS - U.S. Rep. Joe Barton introduced a bill Friday to legalize online poker, hoping to pull the estimated $6 billion industry out of the shadows at a time when its top operators face serious legal troubles.
The Republican lawmaker from Texas told The Associated Press that the bill would let states choose whether they want to allow residents to play poker on the Internet, and operators would be required to already have gambling licenses in at least one U.S. state.
A law passed in 2006 barred financial institutions from processing illegal gambling payments, but many have complained since then that it didn't explicity outlaw playing poker and it didn't define well enough exactly what is illegal.
In April, the Justice Department indicted executives and payment processors of online poker's three biggest companies - PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. They're accused of tricking banks into processing the payments by disguising them as different kinds of transactions. Another indictment against those working for several smaller online poker sites came later.
Barton said he checked around informally with Republican leadership and felt good enough about the bill's chances to move forward.
"This may be the year that the stars align - I hope so," Barton told the AP in advance of a news conference in Washington.
Barton said the issue has traction because the indictments spurred poker players to renew their push on the issue, lawmakers are looking for ways to relieve a budget crunch, and previous efforts - though unsuccessful - have laid the groundwork for a detailed, workable solution.
"I think this bill is going to benefit from a lot of spade-work that's been done the past two or three Congresses," said Barton, a senior member of the House's energy and commerce committee.
The bill, which has 11 co-sponsors including seven Democrats, was met with approval from the Poker Players Alliance, a Washington-based group of poker enthusiasts funded in part by PokerStars and Full Tilt through an Internet gambling association in Canada.
The commercial casino industry's primary trade group, the American Gaming Association, praised Barton for addressing the issue but stopped short of actually endorsing his bill.
Potential operators would apply through a newly created office in the Commerce Department and need to have gambling licenses under at least one state or tribe.
Provisions in the bill restrict those who could apply for a license for the first three years to licensed gambling companies that have significant assets, and require significant vendors to be scrutinized the same way.
The bill would not make it legal to gamble on other casino games like blackjack, craps and slots through the Internet. In casinos, poker games are different because they involve players gambling against each other - not against the house, which has a mathematical advantage.
Barton said he would not support legalizing other casino games online because he believes poker involves more skill than luck.
"We're going to try to get a bill on the president's desk in this Congress," Barton said.