Tobacco legislation remains a long shot Recent negotiations create flicker of hope for some in Congress

March 09, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Congress' difficult road toward a sweeping tobacco control policy reaches a critical turn this week with the first concrete efforts to translate last year's settlement plan into the broadest tobacco legislation in the nation's history.

Furious back-room negotiations in the Senate in recent days have created a flicker of optimism among some in Congress over a deal to raise tobacco taxes, curb cigarette advertising, launch anti-smoking campaigns and fund smoking-cessation programs. But disarray in the reluctant Republican ranks and grandstanding among tobacco foes still make tobacco legislation a long shot.

"There are just too many groups that are more interested in being seen as right than getting anything accomplished," said Sen. Bob Graham, a moderate Florida Democrat who plans to unveil a bipartisan bill in the coming days.

House GOP leaders fear that anything short of the most stinging attack on the tobacco industry will be used by Democrats this election year to portray Republicans as toadies to the unpopular cigarette lobby, which continues to be one of the party's most generous donors.

Some members of the House Republican leadership simply do not want legislation, conceded one House GOP aide working on the issue. "They're afraid the Democrats will paint it as the GOP being in the pockets of Big Tobacco," the aide said. "And I hate to say it, but some in the leadership are playing into that [image]."

Further complicating the equation, one wing of the House GOP is adamantly opposing tax increases of any kind, even a cigarette tax that is critical to any tobacco bill.

Some anti-tobacco Democrats, on the other hand, would just as soon let the issue play out in court, where the industry faces a barrage of lawsuits and a criminal probe by the Justice Department. If Congress does act, these Democrats say it should offer the industry no quarter.

Momentum could shift this week with the introduction of compromise legislation, the drafting of tobacco bills and the deeper involvement of President Clinton. Those events may not ensure passage of a bill, but a breakdown in negotiations could doom the cause.

Tomorrow, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee will take up the first piece of the puzzle, a bill that codifies the Food and Drug Administration's authority to regulate cigarettes.

Early in the week, Graham and Sens. John H. Chafee, a Rhode Island Republican, and Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, will introduce comprehensive legislation that they hope will stake out a middle ground between those who believe the proposed $368.5 billion national settlement is the best possible compromise with the tobacco industry and those who see no reason to compromise at all.

By Friday, the chairmen of each Senate committee with jurisdiction on the issue -- Agriculture, Commerce, Finance, Indian Affairs, Judiciary, Labor and Human Resources, and Veterans Affairs -- must report to GOP leaders on how a national tobacco control policy can be stitched together this year.

Then the main event: On March 25, the Commerce Committee -- which has primary jurisdiction -- is scheduled to hammer out a comprehensive bill springing from the settlement plan forged in June between the tobacco companies and the state attorneys general and trial lawyers.

Meanwhile, the committee's chairman, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, will continue negotiations begun last week with White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles and senior domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed on a detailed bill the president can support.

Under a blistering attack from Republicans for failing to come up with a tobacco bill of his own, Clinton intensified his efforts to pressure Congress into action. He devoted his weekly radio address Saturday to the issue and plans two more speeches on tobacco today and Thursday.

'This is a critical period'

Senators "have been meeting with the White House. Senators are meeting with senators. Republicans are meeting with Democrats. This is a critical period," said Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore, an architect of the landmark settlement plan.

Leaders in both parties caution against too much enthusiasm. "There are still a lot of big questions out there. We've still got a long way to go," said Sen. Don Nickles, the GOP leader coordinating legislative efforts on tobacco. The Oklahoma Republican put a bill's chances at less than 50 percent.

The issue of whether to grant the tobacco industry limited immunity from lawsuits remains the largest sticking point, Nickles said. The proposed settlement, and legislation sponsored by McCain and South Carolina Democrat Ernest F. Hollings, would protect the industry from future class action lawsuits -- potentially the most expensive -- and limit annual payouts to plaintiffs in exchange for major concessions on tobacco advertising and strict new regulations on lobbying and marketing.

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