The debate over online gaming, poker in particular, has been raging since the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed in 2006. But there have been a few recent developments that take online poker a few steps closer to reality. Upcoming budget debates, as Republicans have resisted tax increases, may be just the opening a few key members of Congress need. And a little added revenue from online poker could make both sides of the aisle happy.

Here's what's happened recently:

  • Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been leading the charge in Congress for legalizing online poker, but he's recently gotten help from republican Rep. Joe Barton of Texas. It's with the Energy and Commerce Committee -- of which Barton is the chairman -- where a bill may get its start in Congress, and Barton intends to bring it up.
  • Nevada passed a bill that will allow Internet poker if/when the federal government approves it. Nevada has made no secret about wanting to be the hub for online poker if it is legalized.
  • All indications are that companies operating illegally over the last five years will be kept out of the market, for at least a period of time. That's bad for Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars, but it would allow gaming companies to establish a presence.

Winners and bigger winners
I don't doubt that MGM Resorts (NYSE: MGM) and Caesars Entertainment would attract a large number of players to their online poker rooms. They own some of the strongest brands in gaming including MGM, Bellagio, Caesars, and Mirage, and their rewards programs would draw in customers.

But keeping established online poker companies out might give Las Vegas Sands (NYSE: LVS) and Wynn Resorts (Nasdaq: WYNN) a chance to establish a place in the market before online rivals join in. As much as Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson may hate each other, it may even be smart for them to partner on a site since they target many of the same customers, although that's probably a pipe dream.

Smaller operators like Boyd Gaming (NYSE: BYD), Penn National (Nasdaq: PENN), Ameristar Casinos (Nasdaq: ASCA), and Isle of Capri Casinos (Nasdaq: ISLE) may have to band together to make a formidable opponent to bigger operators. But any slice of this pie would be a bonus for them.

Will it happen or not?
As fellow Fool Morgan Housel pointed out poker is primarily a game of skill, and the existing ban doesn't take that into account. The question now becomes: Will an online poker bill pass? Let us know what you think.