WASHINGTON -- The House last month quietly passed a bill that would restrict smoking in federal buildings to rooms with separate ventilation systems.
The Senate will take up the measure immediately after the holidays, according to a Senate aide. During the summer, the Senate passed a similar provision, contained in a spending bill, only to see it taken out in a conference committee.
Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, wrote the House bill, which he hailed as a "serious health issue" for federal workers. "This is a tough bill," Mr. Traficant said. His bill originally called for a complete ban on smoking in federal buildings. But when a committee worked on the measure, panel members approved the option of designating the specially ventilated room.
The legislation would not apply to military installations and veterans' health facilities, nor would it supersede stricter local provisions that may exist, including the absolute smoking ban that the Social Security Administration imposes .
Rep. Tim Valentine, D-N.C., was the lone opponent of Mr. Traficant's bill. "The legislation is simply unfair," he said.
"Unfair to those federal workers who choose to smoke," Mr. Valentine said. "And unfair to those citizens who smoke and whose business takes them into federal buildings. And unfair to the thousands of Americans, including many in my district, who make an honest and honorable living from the production of tobacco." The North Carolinian also argued that requiring the special ventilation systems would result in a de-facto ban.
Mr. Traficant countered that perhaps no more sophisticated a tool than an "exhaust fan" would be needed to shunt the smoke outside the building.
The Traficant bill is expected to face tough opposition from Sen. Wendell Ford, a fourth-term Kentucky Democrat who puffs on cigarettes while questioning witnesses at Senate hearings.
The Tobacco Institute, which lobbies Congress to protect tobacco-crop subsidies and smokers' rights, points to Mr. Ford as its closest friend in the Senate, where a single lawmaker can hold up a bill under that body's parliamentary rules.
Mr. Ford has departed from conventional arguments defending tobacco. "This should not be an issue of smokers' rights vs. nonsmokers rights," he said this summer. Instead, untallied costs of creating "separate ventilation" systems and unsorted bureaucratic jurisdiction would have to be resolved before the bill becomes law, he explained.
Tobacco industry lobbyists were hoping to rally federal workers to their side in the legislative fight, but that effort has faltered, according to a Senate aide.
Federal employee unions got involved in recent years when the Department of Health and Human Services unilaterally banned smoking in its buildings. The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers at the Health Care Financing Administration in Woodlawn, took HHS to court over the ban because the agency had not collectively bargained with labor on the smoking ban.
That dispute was settled this summer, when the union allowed management to keep the ban in exchange for a pilot program for some employees to work at home, according to Al Levy, vice president of the Woodlawn local.