Landmark tobacco bill rolling through Senate Foes see little chance of stopping measure

May 19, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Like Godzilla tromping down Fifth Avenue, a monumental tobacco bill stormed the Senate floor last night, seemingly impervious to the obstacles opponents are frantically trying to throw in its path.

One of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in decades, the tobacco bill has grown in scope every time members of the Senate have touched it. And the measure could grow larger by the time it reaches a final vote, possibly this week. An array of amendments would increase the tax on cigarettes to $1.50 a pack, toughen indoor smoking provisions, increase penalties on the tobacco industry and decrease its protection from lawsuits or legal damages.

"Many of us harken back to the days when we cured smallpox, cured polio," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle in a reflection of supporters' enthusiasm for the tobacco legislation. "I think the possibility of ending one of the single greatest causes of disease among youth in this country is a dramatic opportunity. And if we seize that opportunity, it could have incredible historic ramifications for our country, for this society."

Even its most ardent opponents fret that -- in the Senate, at least -- they have little chance of stopping what may prove to be a legislative juggernaut.

"I can count votes," said Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the assistant majority leader and chief foe of the tobacco bill. "In all likelihood, the Senate's going to pass it." Fellow Republican Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the heart of tobacco country, offered a similar prediction: "It's very likely to pass, and it's very likely to pass in a form that will be very bad for my state."

The major tobacco companies created their own monster last June when they reached a landmark legal settlement with 40 state attorneys general. They hoped the $368.5 billion deal would be ratified by Congress largely unchanged.

Instead, in a revealing show of the waning of the industry's clout on Capitol Hill, lawmakers used the voluntary agreement as a starting point and increased its scope dramatically. The Senate bill, drafted by Republican John McCain of Arizona, is now worth $516 billion over 25 years. The tax on a pack of cigarettes -- roughly 68 cents in the original deal -- swelled in the McCain measure to $1.10.

When the Senate Finance Committee took up the tobacco issue last week, its leaders hoped to pass an amendment to whittle down the size of the tobacco tax. Instead, a bipartisan coalition voted to raise the tax again, this time to $1.50 a pack.

Approval may come soon

That proposal could be approved by the full Senate as early as this morning, along with a multi-faceted amendment negotiated by McCain and the Clinton White House that would toughen the bill still further. If adopted, the new provisions would raise the annual caps on legal liability facing the industry to $8 billion from $6.5 billion in the original bill, while increasing penalties on companies that fail to bring down youth smoking rates to $4 billion from $3.5 billion in the original version of the bill.

Wall Street analysts predicted yesterday the bill's cost to the industry could reach $850 billion over 25 years.

"This bill has a history of getting worse every time somebody touches it," fumed Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Senate Republican leader.

Undaunted, the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce trotted out the newest set of television advertisements attacking the tobacco legislation to augment the tobacco industry's multi-million campaign already under way. With sinister background music setting the tone, a limousine drives in slow motion past the Capitol, as a sonorous voice intones that "a few trial lawyers (will) pocket billions."

Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president, warned that Congress could turn its wrath on casinos, alcohol, or even diesel fuels next.

"The ultimate concern here is, who's next?" Josten said.

Tobacco fighting back

The hundreds of thousands of dollars the chamber plans to spend this week is dwarfed by the campaign being waged by the tobacco industry. Senators are being deluged with letters from smokers, shopkeepers, tobacco-product distributors and vending-machine owners imploring them to vote against the tobacco bill. Yesterday, 55,000 telegrams landed on senators' desks through the industry's toll-free hot line.

Industry spokesman Steve Duchesne promised the campaign would continue, although he hinted that no lobbying campaign could dampen Washington's quest for cash that he said the tobacco bill now represents.

"It's safe to say Washington's love affair with money is going to continue," Duchesne said.

Senators have been remarkably impervious to the industry's tactics, especially considering the cigarette companies' long history of blocking almost every piece of tobacco legislation they opposed.

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