Monday, July 17, 2006 | 7:14 a.m.
Even as the Senate Republican leadership works to push the Internet gambling ban to a vote before Congress adjourns for the August recess, skeptics on Capitol Hill doubt the proposal will gain the momentum needed for a victory as seen last week in the House.
The House overwhelmingly passed legislation that would beef up existing prohibitions on Internet gambling, which has soared in popularity in recent years with an estimated 8 million Americans playing online and contributing to a $12 billion industry that is expected to double by the end of the decade.
The bill catapulted to center stage as part of House Republicans American Values Agenda and won crossover support from Democrats with a decisive 317-93 vote of approval.
But odds are not as favorable in the Senate, where an already crowded calendar of debates planned on hefty topics like stem cells and defense spending are expected to take up precious floor time as the days tick down to the August recess.
"There doesn't seem to be the energy behind it as there was in the House," said Linda Shorey, an attorney who specializes in gaming issues. "The question is whether Senate leadership is in the mood and sees it as something valuable."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's office said the goal is for the bill to be addressed before the August recess.
Bills to ban online gambling have been at this crossroads before. In fact, over the past decade various attempts to crack down on Internet poker and other games have passed one chamber only to stall in the other.
Radley Balko, a policy analyst at the Libertarian Cato Institute, doubts this issue will be the one Republicans hang their hat on to see them to victory in the November elections.
"Gambling doesn't have the same red-meat value that abortion or flag burning has," he said. "I can't see banning Internet gambling as the difference between Republicans keeping or losing the Congress."
After writing a recent column on the issue for Fox News online, Balko said his inbox was flooded with responses from those opposing a crackdown 10 to 1. "And that's a pretty conservative crowd."
But advocates of toughening up the laws on what is already an outlawed pastime in this country said the cross-over support in the House should give the Senate the confidence it needs to bring the issue to a vote.
Even more, they say after a decade of fits and starts, this year provides the best opportunity for success with Republican domination of both Congress and the White House.
"We know the support is there," said Amanda Banks, federal policy analyst with Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian advocacy organization that has pushed the bill.
"If we don't pass it this year, these couple of months, this might be the last time. We've got a pro-family leadership in the House and the Senate, of course with the president. We don't know how long that will remain."
Many say the wild card will be Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who opposes Internet gambling and has said he would support banning it, but has not yet given his position on the legislation.
"He's going to take a look at the legislation passed by the House to see if it does what its proponents suggest it's intended to do," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "But he's always been opposed to Internet gaming."
A spokesman for Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada said he was studying the bill.
The American Gaming Association, which represents many of the big Las Vegas casinos, is neutral on the bill, but backs Rep. Jon Porter's legislation calling for a study to determine whether it would be feasible to regulate the online industry much the way states oversee casino operations.
Porter's bill has drawn 48 co-sponsors from the ranks of both Democrats and Republicans, and a spokesman said the congressman continues to drum up support. However, experts said the chances of getting the bill heard this session remain slim.
The House bill sponsored by longtime gambling opponent Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., and Jim Leach, R-Iowa, would update federal law that prohibits bets from being placed over telephones to include computers. It would also prevent credit cards from being used to bet.
On the Senate side, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., has similar legislation to ban credit card use and plans to push to get the issue heard before the end of the year.
Bill supporters see online gambling as a particularly troubling form of wagering because it is done without regulations that cover casinos and offers few protections for minors or compulsive gamblers.
But opponents say the online gambling has already taken off as a hugely popular pastime, and they doubt the new law will be able to crack down on what is already an illegal activity. Rarely have players been prosecuted under existing laws.
Internet poker players are gearing up for another round in Congress, and plan to flood the Senate with their opposition - plenty of it from Republicans who play poker online - much the way they did with a 5,000-person e-mail blast to the House.
"I'm surrounded by online poker players that are furious by this," said Cal Spears, president of pocketfives.com, an online poker forum and news site.
"There's so many online poker communities and so many friendships - I don't think they understand what's really going on in the nation now with poker."