GOP fails to weaken tobacco measure But delaying tactics appear successful at least for now

May 21, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- An effort by conservative Senate Republicans to gut landmark tobacco legislation went down to defeat yesterday, starkly revealing how thin the ranks of the tobacco bill's opposition have become.

The bill's opponents, led by Sen. John Ashcroft, a Missouri Republican, did manage to slow the legislation's progress, virtually assuring that the Senate will not pass the legislation until after a weeklong Memorial Day recess. Opponents hope their tactics will allow time for a media blitz by the tobacco industry, business leaders and anti-tax groups to erode support for the measure.

But the broad consensus on both sides is that some form of far-reaching bill -- one that would sharply raise cigarette taxes to try to reduce youth smoking and to pay for smoking-related health costs -- will be approved by Congress this spring.

Indeed, the drive in favor of legislation that could tax the tobacco industry at least $516 billion over 25 years took on the tone of a crusade yesterday. Hundreds of schoolchildren rallied behind the bill, first at the White House, then on the steps of the Capitol.

"The American people -- no matter how far they are from Washington -- are cheering us on," said Olympic gold-medal figure skater Tara Lipinski, who joined in the rallies. "In the end, we are going to win."

President Clinton, who has sometimes been muted in his support of the legislation, offered his most outspoken endorsement yesterday, declaring: "This bill is our best chance to protect the health of our children, to keep them from getting hooked on cigarettes ever. It is a good bill, a strong bill. Congress should pass it and pass it now."

Inside the Capitol, the going was slow, as a small contingent of conservatives droned on for nearly four hours, decrying a tax increase that they said would disproportionately hit lower-income households and predicting the emergence of a black market as the price of cigarettes rise sharply. Ashcroft called the bill, sponsored by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, "an affront to the efforts of families to fight for themselves."

Ashcroft, who plans to run for president in 2000, supported a tobacco tax increase in 1991 when he was governor of Missouri. His proposed 5-cents-a-pack increase was part of a $385 million tax package that he pushed to try to pay for his educational reform package. The tax package was killed in a statewide referendum.

Ashcroft's newfound opposition to tobacco taxes is not widely shared, at least in the Senate. When the filibuster's steam ran out yesterday, senators voted 72-26 to kill Ashcroft's amendment, which would have stripped most of the tax increases from the tobacco bill. Twenty-seven Republicans -- almost half the total -- voted against Ashcroft.

The Senate then voted 58-40 to block an effort by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, to raise the bill's tobacco tax, from $1.10 a pack to $1.50. After the White House hinted that the president would stand by the original $1.10 tax, 13 Democrats, including Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, voted against the Kennedy amendment.

The combined effect underscored the momentum of McCain's bill. A solid core in both parties has coalesced to protect the measure from efforts to weaken or strengthen it.

That is not to say the legislation's passage is guaranteed. The Senate could still stumble over an arcane conflict involving buyouts to tobacco farmers, an issue that has divided lawmakers from farm states. And the longer that opponents can delay final passage, the easier it will be for House Republican leaders to run out the clock on the bill.

"You can't get through a minefield without setting at least one off," McCain said.

Proponents had hoped to push the bill through the Senate before the Memorial Day break. That may now be impossible. Opponents refused to call their delaying tactics a filibuster, with Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, calling it "a rarefied debate style."

Whatever it was, the performance frayed nerves and appeared successful -- for now.

"There's no question those of us who oppose the McCain bill will be debating it long after Memorial Day," Craig boasted.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and longtime tobacco foe, snapped: "I would say to the supporters of this morning's filibuster, the clock may be on their side, but history is not."

More moderate opponents now concede that the bill will pass the Senate, but they hope to drastically rewrite it if and when it reaches a closed-door conference between House and Senate negotiators.

Sens. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, have forged a more modest version of the bill. Their version would raise $428 billion in tobacco tax revenue over 25 years but would provide significant legal protections for the tobacco industry, such as banning class-action lawsuits from former smokers.

Only with such concessions, Hatch and Feinstein argued, can Congress gain the industry's assent to the severe restrictions on advertising and marketing that the cigarette makers have vowed to fight in court.

In uncharacteristically harsh terms, Hatch yesterday denounced Democrats and health advocates who insist on a bill at least as tough as McCain's. "Public health," Hatch said, "will be screwed to the wall" if the industry does not sign on.

"They're willing to risk it all on an unconstitutional bill that will be litigated for 10 straight years," Hatch said of the public health community.

Even some Democrats were quietly conceding the point. Sen. John B. Breaux of Louisiana said the final bill will be written by House and Senate negotiators. Breaux predicted that it likely will look a lot like Hatch's proposal.

Pub Date: 5/21/98

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