Senate Republicans yesterday killed a national tobacco bill championed by public health groups and the White House, ending a grueling four-week debate.
The bill's narrow defeat stops for now an unprecedented year-long effort to reduce smoking by young people and strictly regulate the tobacco industry -- in return for some protection for cigarette makers from an onslaught of lawsuits over smoking-related illnesses.
Though the bill had a majority of votes in its favor, it failed in two successive roll calls -- by three votes and then by seven votes -- to overcome the Senate's standard parliamentary hurdle of 60 votes for contested bills. The end came after the central player in the debate, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), moved to end the marathon, arguing that the bill had strayed "far afield" of its intent to curb teenage smoking and become a "cookie jar" to fund other government programs.
The bill's demise was a major defeat for President Clinton and public health advocates and a victory for the nation's leading cigarette makers, who have spent millions lobbying against it, in addition to making substantial contributions to the Republican Party. While the effort to reshape the $50 billion tobacco industry survived many near-death experiences in recent months, it was worn down eventually by a combination of hostile conservatives, election-year politics and the industry's unprecedented $40 million advertising campaign.
Democrats said they intend to make the bill's death a major issue in the November elections, and in the Senate, they warned that they will attempt to attach the tobacco measure to virtually every bill that comes to the floor this year.
"This bill dies tonight but the issue will live," said Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), accusing the Republicans of "cynically" loading the bill with tax cuts and anti-drug initiatives and then dumping it for being too heavy.
David A. Kessler, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and a leading public health voice throughout the debate, said the GOP leadership "inextricably linked itself with Big Tobacco."
Even the normally reserved White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles seemed fired up by the defeat, vowing "a fight to the finish." In addition to Senate action, Bowles said Democrats will try to force a vote on a similar bill in the House.
After the vote, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) issued a statement saying House Republicans intend to "take up and pass" more narrowly focused legislation intended to "reduce teen smoking, not increase taxes."
Lott said he was encouraged by Gingrich's plans: "I hope that we can convince Senate Democrats and the White House to join us in that effort without again resorting to the big government, big tax, big spending bill that was defeated today."
The bill's defeat came on two procedural votes at the end of a tense day of Republican and Democratic closed-door caucuses.
In the first showdown, the vote was 57 to 42 to limit debate and force a vote on the bill, three short of the 60 needed to end the GOP delaying tactics. Fourteen Republicans, including party moderates and some conservatives who work on health issues, joined all but two Senate Democrats in voting to limit debate. Two tobacco-state Democrats, Virginia Sen. Charles S. Robb and Kentucky Sen. Wendell H. Ford, voted against limiting debate.
The death blow was delivered on the second vote when the Senate failed 53 to 46 -- seven short of the necessary 60 -- to permit the bill to stay on the floor even though its tax and spending provisions violated budget limits.
Washington area senators split on both votes, with Maryland senators voting for -- and Virginia senators against -- the moves to force the bill to passage.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), was a broad vehicle that would have imposed the largest price increase ever on cigarettes -- $1.10 per pack over the next five years -- and major restrictions on the tobacco industry. Though it would have reached into many areas, its major focus was to curb underage smoking.
The bill started out with much in its favor. There was unwavering public disdain for the tobacco industry and growing insistence on some kind of change. Teenage smoking was a powerful political rallying point. With McCain taking the lead, the bill came out of the Commerce Committee on a 19 to 1 vote. The White House, Senate Democrats and moderate Republicans seemed to make a potent core of support and analysts began to predict the bill would pass the Senate and steam into the House with substantial momentum.
But the Commerce vote turned out to be the high point.
The tobacco industry, which originally supported a bill with legal protections and smaller price increases, bolted when its protections were slashed. The industry's defection had the effect of making a voluntary payment into a federal tax on cigarettes -- an issue they quickly exploited with an eight-week, national TV-and-radio ad campaign. Conservative Republicans picked up that message as they began the strategy of delaying tactics and the addition of amendments supposedly unpalatable to Democrats -- such as a reduction in the so-called marriage penalty in the personal income tax and funds to curb drug use. Lott, too, took up the tax-and-spend theme in public appearances.
Washington lawyer John P. Coale, one of the trial lawyers who has sued the industry, blamed the health community for stripping the bill of legal protections and toughening other portions of the bill. "Nothing was ever enough, and it gave the Republicans enough ammunition to call it tax and spend," Coale said.
In the House, Gingrich waged rhetorical war against the measure, saying it would be dead on arrival in that chamber.
Electoral politics weighed heavily on the Republicans, who chose to bet that the appeal of the tax-and-spend message to their conservative base would overcome any negative association with the tobacco industry among other voters. Some sources said yesterday that one motivation behind killing the bill in the Senate was fear that House members might be hurt in November if the bill was defeated in that that chamber.
Yesterday's showdown votes came after a brief but impassioned debate. Lott said he was moving to sideline the bill because it had bogged down and was holding up other important legislation. "We're stalled with no end in sight . . . the Senate has not reached a consensus here," he said.
Democrats responded that, if the bill was weighted down, it was largely because of Republican additions to it. To turn around and kill the bill and blame others is "reprehensible," charged Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Republicans agreed but blamed Democrats. "I am outraged that there are a good number of folks who would like to hide behind the idea of teenage smoking" to "raise more taxes . . . and create more federal bureaucracies and big government" than Congress has done in a vote, said Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho). CAPTION: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) sponsored ill-fated measure. CAPTION: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is surrounded by reporters as he finishes news conference after the Senate Republican caucus decided to kill his bill.