TOBACCO: Senate Strips Big Tobacco Liability Provisions
By a vote of 61-37, the Senate yesterday kept alive an amendment by Sens. Judd Gregg (R-NH) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that would eliminate the tobacco industry's civil liability protections under Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) tobacco bill, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports. The vote "was the first major setback for the bill," in that the amendment is aimed at killing "one of the linchpins of the Senate bill" -- the liability protections that tobacco companies insisted be added in return for agreeing to "severe -- and perhaps unconstitutional -- limits on advertising" and other anti-tobacco measures. The failure to table the amendment yesterday all but assures eventual passage of the Gregg-Leahy measure. "Today's vote shows that an overwhelming majority of the Senate agrees that we can curb teenage smoking without shielding the tobacco industry with unprecedented legal protections," said Leahy (5/22). Gregg, defending the amendment, asked why special treatment should be accorded to "an industry which targets kids with a poisonous product that they made addictive?"
The New York Times reports that the vote brought together an "unusual coalition" of senators "who have vowed to kill the legislation and others who advocate the toughest possible" bill. Opponents of providing industry liability protections prevailed against the opposing alliance of "President Clinton, Senator John McCain and other Senate leaders" (Rosenbaum, 5/22). Sen. John Kerry, (D-MA), a supporter of the McCain bill, said, "There's something perverse in this. Some of the people who voted (to remove the liability cap) are people who want to kill the bill" (Taylor, Wall Street Journal, 5/22). CongressDaily/A.M. notes that in the final tally, "[t]wenty Democrats and 17 Republicans voted to table the amendment, while 37 Republicans and 24 Democrats voted against tabling" (Koffler, 5/22). The Chicago Tribune reports that the final vote may be misleading, however, in that it was "considered close until it became clear the liability ceilings would fail -- then a number of senators switched ... to record public opposition" to tobacco industry liability protections. "Members either had a blinding flash or decided it was safer to say they voted against the tobacco companies," said McCain (Dorning, 5/22). Former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler favored the Gregg-Leahy amendment, saying in a joint letter to Gregg: "No other industry, no matter how valuable to this nation, has such protections" (Hoeffel, Winston-Salem Journal, 5/22).
We'll Still Win In The End
McCain downplayed the significance of yesterday's vote: "It was obviously a setback. That's not going to change the ultimate result, which is a bill that will be comprehensive legislation" (Times-Dispatch, 5/22). He also said, "There is nothing fatal about this." However, the Wall Street Journal reports that conservatives "were emboldened by their victory and confident they can use various parliamentary tactics to obstruct the McCain bill after the recess." Opponents are also "counting on House leaders to tone down whatever version of the McCain bill that emerges from the Senate." Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles (R-OK) said McCain "is a good friend of mine, but I don't like his bill" (5/22). Scott Ballin of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said, "If they want to look tough on the industry, they vote against (legal) immunity." Then the senators may feel safe "to come back later and kill the entire bill," he said (Torry, Washington Post, 5/22).
The Road Ahead
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) yesterday suspended proceedings on the tobacco bill until after the congressional Memorial Day recess. Kerry "predicted the issue would be revisited either by the Senate or in a conference with the House this summer," once the House releases its own bill (Times-Dispatch, 5/22). The Dallas Morning News reports that even if the McCain bill ultimately passes, the "lack of legal relief virtually guarantees that the industry will fight it in court." Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said, "If we don't have them (the tobacco firms) back on board, this thing is going to be litigated for years and years, and 10 million more kids are down the drain" (Rodrigue/Curriden, 5/22). As such, McCain indicated he might attempt to change "some of the constitutionally suspect provisions of the bill to lessen the chance of industry challenges" (CongressDaily/A.M., 5/22).
The Ad War, Continued
Today's New York Times looks at the tobacco industry's ad campaign to kill tobacco legislation: "The campaign ... includes the purchase of television time in at least 50 major media markets, and lobbyists on both sides say it was a big factor in the decision today to postpone a Senate vote on the bill until after Congress returns next month from recess. Both sides describe the delay as at least a short-term gain for the tobacco industry" (Henneberger, 5/22).