SETTLEMENT: White House Hedges Support For Conrad Bill
Despite earlier reports, White House officials said yesterday that the president is not likely to endorse the tobacco settlement bill sponsored by Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) because it will probably not win bipartisan support, the Wall Street Journal reports (Taylor, 2/11). Vice President Al Gore is expected to join Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Conrad at a press conference today to introduce the bill, known as the "Healthy Kids Act" (Gore release, 2/10). According to White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry, although Gore will "say some supportive things" about Conrad's tobacco proposal, ultimately the administration will "have to have a bipartisan approach" (Wall Street Journal, 2/11). In addition, David Ogden, counselor to Attorney General Janet Reno, told a Senate committee yesterday that "the administration is not endorsing (Conrad's bill) to the exclusion of other[s]" (CongressDaily, 2/10).
McCurry noted that Conrad's bill had gained some White House support because it "'embraces' Clinton's five principles for tobacco legislation" (CongressDaily/A.M., 2/11). However, the bill has failed to gain Republican support, or even universal Democratic approval, because it "does not give the industry the partial immunity from future lawsuits that it sought," Reuters/Philadelphia Inquirer reports. "Obviously they want more -- they want special privileges and protections. But they won't get it," Conrad said (2/11). Although some senators said they are likely to support the Conrad measure, others said that they will wait to see if a bipartisan bill emerges before signing on to the legislation. The Los Angeles Times reports that Conrad's failure to include legal immunity for cigarette makers "met with scant criticism from Republicans, suggesting they also are unlikely to support the limits on liability sought by the tobacco industry." Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-OK) said, "I haven't seen the votes for immunity" (Rubin, 2/11). However, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said it was unlikely the industry would agree to the settlement without immunity. "If you don't do away with class-action lawsuits and provide other protections, what's the incentive of the tobacco industry to settle?" he asked. Senators from tobacco growing states also expressed objections to the bill, noting that it would "provide $10 billion for tobacco farmers over five years, far less than some Republican proposals" (Wall Street Journal, 2/11).
Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee Chair Jim Jeffords (R- VT) unveiled his own tobacco legislation yesterday. Jeffords said that he has three goals: to prevent kids from smoking, to help people who want to quit smoking and to make safer products available for people who choose to smoke. He said he wants the Food and Drug Administration to have greater regulatory control over cigarettes, but without classifying cigarettes as a medical device under federal law. His bill would give the FDA the authority to require the elimination of tobacco additives and harmful ingredients and to reduce the level of nicotine to whatever the FDA deems appropriate -- short of complete elimination of nicotine (Jeffords release, 2/10).
Free Speech Violations
The Senate Judiciary Committee was warned yesterday that some of the restrictions on tobacco advertisements included in the global settlement proposal "would violate free speech" protections. The Washington Times reports that Floyd Abrams, an attorney who has argued several free speech cases before the Supreme Court, said, "I would urge both this committee and the Congress not to start down a path so obviously fraught with avoidable First Amendment land mines." He suggested that Congress consider passing a bill similar to Sen. Hatch's tobacco proposal, which would include "a series of court-enforced consent decrees spelling out unacceptable tobacco industry marketing practices" (Goldreich, 2/11).
Signs Of Difficulty
The New York Times reports that the "early maneuvering" by Conrad, Jeffords and Hatch "illustrated some of the difficult issues Congress must face if comprehensive tobacco legislation is to be enacted this year. It also underscored the complications that arise when several different committees and strong-willed lawmakers claim jurisdiction over various parts of the legislation" (Rosenbaum, 2/11).