WASHINGTON--President Clinton is becoming increasingly ensnared in the tobacco wars on Capitol Hill, where partisan politics and philosophical differences threaten passage of national tobacco legislation. If no bill is passed before the November elections, many believe the issue could become even more politicized.
Depending on whos talking, tobacco legislation is either dead in Congress or ailing but amenable to resuscitation. In the Senate, a bill crafted by John McCain (R-Ariz) and Ernest F. Hollings (D-SC) won approval from the Commerce Committee. The proposal would increase the cost to the tobacco industry over 25 years from $368.5 billion in the original settlement to at least $516 billion, and would not protect the industry from class action lawsuits.
The vote led the major tobacco companies to abandon negotiations with the House and Senate over a new tobacco law, and to vow to fight the issue in the courts and in the court of public opinion. In fact, the industry has begun a nationwide TV campaign against the bill.
The current disagreement has left some in Congress suggesting that no bill will win approval in 1998 and that the issue will be fought out in the November congressional elections. It is a situation President Clinton professes to abhor.
"I do not want this to be an issue in the November election," he said at a White House press conference. "If it is, it will only be because those people who have a political or a financial interest in seeing that this matter is not revolved between now and November prevent it from being resolved."
Although Mr. Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga) have both urged passage of tobacco legislation, the two men and their respective parties are divided over how to spend any money paid from a settlement.
Tax Cuts or Federal Programs?
Republicans strongly favor using the funds to enable a tax reduction. The President favors using the tobacco dollars to pay for assorted federal programs. For instance, much of the increase proposed by Mr. Clinton in the NIH budget for fiscal year 1999 would be paid for by dollars gained from the settlement. Mr. Clinton believes spending tobacco money for certain issues, particularly child care and early education, is appropriate. But he did not make it a requirement for signing any comprehensive legislation.
Earlier, the President was less kind in addressing remarks made by Mr. Gingrich. The House Speaker had said that teen smoking had nothing to do with Joe Camel and more to do with Hollywood movies that glamorize smoking. The President responded: "Medical science and common sense make it plain: Teen smoking has everything to do with Joe Camel, with unscrupulous marketing campaigns that prey on the insecurities and dreams of our children. The industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on such campaigns, plainly not designed to appeal to adults. It is time to end this once and for all."