Only hours after Rep. Roy Blunt was named to the House's third-highest leadership job in November, he surprised his fellow top Republicans by trying to quietly insert a provision benefiting Philip Morris USA into the 475-page bill creating a Department of Homeland Security, according to several people familiar with the effort.
The new majority whip, who has close personal and political ties to the company, instructed congressional aides to add the tobacco provision to the bill -- then within hours of a final House vote -- even though no one else in leadership supported it or knew he was trying to squeeze it in.
Once alerted to the provision, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's chief of staff, Scott Palmer, quickly had it pulled out, said a senior GOP leader who requested anonymity. Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) also opposed what Blunt (Mo.) was trying to do, the member said, and "worked against it" when he learned of it.
The provision would have made it harder to sell tobacco products over the Internet and would have cracked down on the sale of contraband cigarettes, two practices that cut into Philip Morris's profits. Blunt has received large campaign donations from Philip Morris, his son works for the company in Missouri and the House member has a close personal relationship with a Washington lobbyist for the firm.
It is highly unusual for a House Republican to insert a last-minute contentious provision that has never gone through a committee, never faced a House vote and never been approved by the speaker or majority leader. Blunt's attempt became known only to a small circle of House and White House officials. They kept it quiet, preferring no publicity on a matter involving favors for the nation's biggest tobacco company and possible claims of conflicts of interest.
Several in that circle say they were struck by Blunt's willingness to go out on a limb for a company to which he has ties. What's more, he did it within hours of climbing to the House leadership's third-highest rung, a notable achievement for a man who came to Washington less than six years ago.
A senior Republican lawmaker who requested anonymity said some GOP members worried at the time that it would be "embarrassing" to the party and its new whip if details of the effort were made public. Another Republican said Blunt's effort angered some leaders because there was "so little support for" a pro-tobacco provision likely to generate controversy.
In an interview last week, Blunt said he pushed for the tobacco provision after talking with John F. Scruggs, vice president of government affairs for Altria Group Inc., Philip Morris's parent company. "It's good policy," Blunt said.
Scruggs said in an interview that the provision was "pretty important to us." Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette producer, would have benefited from the measure more than any other company.
Several Republicans who learned of the November effort have privately expressed concern that Blunt pushed the provision partly because of his personal relationship with Philip Morris lobbyist Abigail Perlman. Blunt, who several Republicans said spends considerable time with Perlman, would not discuss their relationship or whether the two had talked about the provision.
"I am just going to talk about policy here," he said. Perlman did not return two phone calls placed last week requesting comment.
Andrew B. Blunt, one of the lawmaker's sons, is a lobbyist for Philip Morris in Missouri, where his work is confined to state matters. Andrew Blunt did not return two phone calls requesting comment. Rep. Blunt did not talk to his son about the tobacco provision, the congressman's spokeswoman said.
Philip Morris has contributed more than $150,000 to political committees affiliated with Blunt since 2001, according to Federal Election Commission records.
Blunt said he pushed the provision because he thought it was good policy, much of it drawn from legislation introduced last year by then-Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.). Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) recently introduced legislation that would do much of what Philip Morris was seeking to do, Blunt said. He said the provision was relevant to the homeland security bill because news reports last year showed that terrorist groups, such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, were profiting from the sale of contraband cigarettes.
Blunt said his actions were no different than those of a member who successfully tucked a provision providing liability protections to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company into the same homeland security bill.
The Eli Lilly provision, once discovered, embarrassed the GOP because it appeared the party was using the cover of homeland security to protect a big contributor. No one has acknowledged responsibility for adding the Eli Lilly provision, which Republican leaders later agreed to rescind.
Hastert has not spoken publicly about Blunt and the Philip Morris provision. His spokesman, John Feehery, said yesterday, "It had not been fully vetted and there was no sign-off from the Judiciary Committee, and that's why it didn't go in the homeland security bill."
Because Blunt's actions in the Philip Morris matter were kept quiet, there were no apparent repercussions or threats to his leadership ambitions. Meanwhile, there is evidence that the majority whip has continued to work aggressively on behalf of companies to which he has ties.
In April, for instance, Blunt managed to have a provision inserted into a Senate bill, without debate, on behalf of United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. The two companies were seeking to block the expansion of a foreign rival's U.S. operations. Blunt's son Andrew also represents UPS in Missouri, as the Wall Street Journal first reported, and the two companies have contributed a total of $120,000 to Blunt since 2001, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Also this spring, Blunt brokered a deal with Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R-Ky.) to fight for a vote on legislation that could open the door to Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco, a top priority for Philip Morris, a senior House GOP leader said. Philip Morris would benefit because it is far ahead of its competitors in designing and selling "safer" cigarettes that could be permitted if the FDA gains regulatory power, lawmakers and industry experts said.
Other tobacco companies oppose linking FDA regulation to a tobacco buyout.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.