Defeat of Tobacco Bill: a Tangled Tale Of Politics and Too Much Baggage

Senate has thrown up its hands, but House leaders pledge to offer a narrower measure.

In the end, a comprehensive tobacco deal proved too much for Congress to swallow.

The Senate's defeat of the much-amended proposal stems in large part from the fact that the bill was numbingly complex, touching on interests vital to the public-health community, retailers, tobacco farmers, and trial lawyers - not to mention the nation's 46 million smokers.

But partisan politics, regional disputes, and Senate rules played a role as well, say pundits, who are now busy assessing whether Congress will manage to pass a narrower antismoking measure this year.

Wednesday's Senate vote is a defeat for President Clinton, who had put the tobacco bill at the top of his domestic agenda and had hoped to make it an important part of his presidential legacy.

Prospects for a narrower tobacco bill aside, a host of other questions encircle the issue. Does the defeat create an issue for Democrats to use against Republicans in the fall elections? Or did the American people write off a tobacco deal weeks ago, perhaps persuaded by an industry ad campaign that it was just another tax-and-spend proposal?

Supporters vow to press on. Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota promises to attempt to attach the bill as an amendment to a spending bill, a tactic he tried unsuccessfully yesterday. "We have no choice but to continue to press this issue," he says.

"We'll have to go back and take a look at going back and doing something state by state, which is more difficult," says Michael Moore (D), the Mississippi attorney general who filed the state lawsuit against cigarette companies that started the process. States will now press their suits, he predicts.

Less smoking, no taxes?

Meanwhile, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia says House Republicans will unveil a bill this week to curb teen smoking and combat drug abuse - without raising the billions in taxes called for in the proposal offered by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona.

Last June's agreement between 40 states and the tobacco industry would require cigarette companies to pay $369 billion over 25 years to reimburse states for health-care expenses they had incurred and to discourage teen smoking. The companies promised to curtail their advertising and would get immunity from most lawsuits.

But the agreement required congressional action before it could be implemented. Mr. Clinton delayed much of last summer, slowing the agreement's momentum, then did not endorse it.

Congress deferred the issue until this year. By then, supporters of a tougher approach toward the tobacco companies were emboldened by damaging information about the firms that emerged from a Minnesota court case. Clinton then shocked Republicans with a proposal to spend tobacco revenues on a host of domestic initiatives, spurring more debate.

Finally, Senator Lott asked Senator McCain to move a bill through the Commerce Committee. The measure that emerged from that committee was vastly different than the original agreement. Instead of granting immunity, it limited tobacco-lawsuit liability to $8 billion a year. It called for the US Food and Drug Administration to exercise more control over tobacco than the states and the companies had envisioned. It called for a $1.10-a-pack cigarette tax and mandated advertising restrictions the companies had agreed to voluntarily.

The tobacco firms walked away from the McCain measure, saying it would bankrupt them. They then mounted a $50 million advertising campaign to label the bill as a massive tax increase. By comparison, the famous "Harry and Louise" ad campaign against the president's 1993 health-care proposal cost $10 million.

The campaign apparently worked. "On talk shows, I hear people call in and they parrot the ads," McCain says. Both sides issued dueling polls showing Americans siding with their position.

By the time the bill's supporters moved on Wednesday to cut off debate, the measure bore little resemblance to the original committee proposal. (They fell three short of the 60 votes needed to advance it.) Gone were limits on company liability, replaced by caps on attorneys' fees. A proposal to reduce the "marriage penalty" on income taxes was tacked on. Amendments increased punishment for tobacco companies if they did not meet goals in reducing teen smoking and added antidrug provisions.

Pummeled on many sides

Public-health advocates blasted the amendments as taking away money needed to fight teen smoking. Conservative Republicans - who had insisted on the antidrug and marriage-penalty provisions - raged over the bill's cost and charged it violated the budget caps negotiated last year. They dealt the bill a final blow when the Senate failed to waive the budget rules.

Democrats were furious. "Reprehensible," fumed Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California. "There's a lesson here today: Tobacco companies have money; kids don't," charged Sen. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota.

But Lott was unrepentant. "We've lost sight of the original noble cause of just dealing with teen smoking and drug abuse," he said. After almost 80 hours of debate over four weeks, the bill was going nowhere and the Senate needed to move on, he said.

In the end, Mr. Moore says, "partisan politics and overreaching ... by everybody" doomed the measure.

If Democrats fail to get the bill passed, they will turn to the voters, says Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. "It may be that the final vote on this issue will take place on election day."

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