Tobacco legislation 'dead in the water,' Senate leader says Debate over amendments slows action on bill limiting cigarette sales

June 08, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said yesterday that the historic tobacco-control bill pending before the Senate is "dead in the water."

Lott's comment came one day after President Clinton chastised the Senate for delaying action on the measure and demanded that it be passed this week.

The Mississippi Republican said the Senate will vote on more amendments to the tobacco bill this week, but termed a final vote "not very likely." Speaking on CNN's "Late Edition," he continued, "At this point it's dead in the water. There may never be a final vote on the [tobacco] bill."

Lott's comments underscored the increasing sense on Capitol Hill that the once-powerful momentum behind sweeping legislation to restrict the sale and marketing of cigarettes is ebbing fast.

The measure would raise the price of cigarettes by an estimated $1.10 a pack over five years and would assess the five major tobacco companies $516 billion over 25 years. The money is to go to states to reimburse them for Medicaid expenses resulting from smoking-related diseases, to public health programs and to tobacco farmers put out of business by the law.

Republican Sens. Phil Gramm of Texas and John Ashcroft of Missouri led an effort by conservatives to devote a large portion of the tobacco revenues instead to cover tax cuts, especially one intended to offset the increased taxes some people pay when they marry -- the "marriage penalty." Public health lobbies say tobacco tax revenues should be reserved solely for health-related purposes.

Debate over that and other proposed amendments has slowed Senate action on the tobacco bill for weeks. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and the bill's chief architect, voiced uncharacteristic pessimism Thursday, saying: "What's happening now is what I feared would happen. We should move on this bill or just leave it."

Democrats hope to force a vote this week to end debate, but Lott frowned on that effort yesterday. "Now they're using procedural techniques to try to cut off legitimate amendments," he said.

Lott said Congress could easily pass legislation to curb teen smoking -- the bill's stated goal -- "for a lot less than $516 billion." That statement reveals his sympathy with the approach preferred by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Georgia Republican who wants to pass a narrow bill attacking teen smoking that is far less aggressive than the measure before the Senate.

Clinton favors the Senate bill and tried to revive it with pointed comments Saturday during his weekly radio address.

"Today I say to them, 'The delay has gone on long enough,' " Clinton said of the Senate. "You're not just trying to kill the tobacco bill. You're standing in the way of saving 1 million children's lives."

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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