Bill to legalize online poker could be introduced next week

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) could introduce legislation as soon as next week that would legalize online poker and create a new federal regulatory body to oversee the sites.

The FBI shut down the three largest online poker sites in April in a crackdown that poker players have dubbed "Black Friday." Since then the sites have remained shuttered and more have been seized as part of the administration's broad crackdown on online piracy, counterfeiting and gambling.

Barton has previously argued that "poker is a game of skill" and said he plays himself, though not online. His staff has been working with the Poker Players Alliance on the bill since last month after hearing from players angered by the ban on the game.

A spokesman for Barton confirmed the bill is in the final stages of drafting and expected to be released in the near future. The bill would legalize online poker alone; other forms of Internet gambling and betting would remain illegal.

Under the legislation, online poker sites would have to be registered in a state where gambling is already allowed, such as Nevada or New Jersey. Sites would be required to register with the gaming commissions in those states, which would be in charge of ensuring they don't cheat consumers. The bill would also create a new regulatory body to oversee the game at a federal level.

Users in all 50 states would be allowed to play on the sites for real money, but states would be given the option to opt out of the law and ban online poker if they so choose. Whether that decision would be made by the state legislatures or a referendum has yet to be determined.

The spokesman said the bill would be steered through the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which appears more open to legalizing online poker than the House Financial Services Committee under Chairman Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.). Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and John Campbell (R-Calif.) introduced a similar bill in that committee that appears unlikely to go anywhere.

The spokesman said Barton's office is reaching out to members on both sides of the aisle and to the Senate in hopes of getting bipartisan support for legislation this session. But the strongest support could come from the estimated 10 million Americans that used the online poker sites until the sites were shut down.