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House votes yes on Net-gambling crackdown

Republicans win approval of controversial bill, calling online gambling a "scourge," warning of wireless betting.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to restrict Internet gambling, a move Republicans hope will boost their popularity before the November election.

By a vote of 317 to 93, politicians approved a controversial bill that tries to eliminate many forms of online gambling by targeting Internet service providers and financial intermediaries, namely banks and credit card companies that process payments to offshore Web sites.

Net gambling "is a scourge on our society," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who's tried for the better part of a decade to enact legislation that combats Net gambling.

During the floor debate, which lasted about four hours, supporters of the measure warned of the growing popularity of wireless devices and said Congress needed to enact restrictions now. One estimate puts revenues from Internet gambling at more than $10 billion a year.

"Gamblers will be able to place bets not just from their home computers, but also from their cell phones as they drive to work and from their BlackBerrys when they wait in line for the movies," said Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act would clarify that federal law prohibits processing financial transactions related to "unlawful" online gambling. In addition, it would in some cases force Internet service providers to block access to offshore gambling sites.

Tuesday's vote on the bill, which most House Democrats opposed and nearly all Republicans endorsed, is designed to target offshore Web sites that go by names like BetBug of Toronto; of Antigua; Bodog Sportsbook, Casino and Poker of Costa Rica; and Betfair, which has offices in London.

It's also intended to aid the political fortunes of Republicans who are worried about losing control of the House of Representatives in the November election. Last month, House Republican leaders announced that the bill would be part of a 10-part "American Values Agenda," along with a constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage and further restrictions on stem cell research.

While some Democrats supported the measure, most criticized it as unnecessary and riddled with loopholes. One section of the bill, for instance, indicates that betting on horse racing will remain legal. (The National Thoroughbred Racing Association said in an earlier statement that its members can "continue to conduct interstate, account and Internet wagering.")

Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, called it a "loophole as big as a barn door" and said lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty in January to fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials, would be proud. Abramoff's plea agreement says he offered illegal bribes relating to "stopping legislation regarding Internet gambling."

At one point, Rep. Shelley Berkley, a Democrat from Nevada, offered an amendment that would have eliminated what she called the "hypocritical exemption" by flatly banning all forms of Internet gambling. It failed by a vote of 114 to 297.

Goodlatte and has allies have tried to ban Net gambling before, with votes on early legislative efforts as far back as 1997. The House of Representatives even approved a very similar bill in June 2003--but the Senate failed to act.

That could happen again. Senators have not made a priority of enacting Net-gambling restrictions this year, and not much time is left in the congressional session because politicians hope to leave town early to campaign in the November election.