WASHINGTON -- The Senate's landmark anti-smoking legislation collapsed yesterday under its own weight and the sustained attacks of the tobacco industry, after supporters failed to break a determined filibuster.
Supporters fell three votes short of the 60 needed to end a nearly monthlong debate and to bring the bill to the point where it could be passed.
Fourteen Republicans joined nearly all of the Senate's 45 Democrats to form a solid majority in favor of the bill -- enough to give final approval to the measure, but not enough to break the filibuster.
Republican leaders then yanked the mammoth bill from the Senate floor, effectively driving a stake through its heart.
"We finally had a vote for sanity," declared Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Senate's second-ranking Republican and one of its most determined opponents, as he pronounced the bill dead.
"This bill was not salvageable."
The measure, which grew out of a settlement that the tobacco industry reached last year with many states suing to recover the health care costs of tobacco-related illness, would have raised cigarette taxes by $1.10 a pack, curbed tobacco advertising and marketing, and funded anti-tobacco education campaigns.
It also would have given the government broad new powers to regulate the content of tobacco, including nicotine levels.
Opponents contended that the bill would have triggered a criminal black market in cigarettes, that the tax increase was too large and that the measure would have been a boon to greedy lawyers.
"I hope the senators who derailed this bill today lose sleep every night listening to the sound of children taking their first puff and the sound of emphysema and cancer patients gasping their last breath," said Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former Republican U.S. surgeon general, who has been a leading champion of the fight against smoking.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich promptly pledged to pass a much more limited measure that would combat teen smoking and drug use but not increase the federal tax on cigarettes that had been the major source of contention in the Senate bill.
Senate Republicans said they would also consider a more limited bill.
Democrats vowed to continue the fight, pledging to insert provisions of the tobacco bill in other measures that come to the Senate.
President Clinton refused to give in, urging the Senate to reconsider and serving notice that he would make GOP-led rejection of the measure a major issue in this year's congressional elections.
"When the American people understand fully what's been going on, they won't like what they see," the president said after the bill's defeat, declaring "there should be" political ramifications for the bill's opponents.
But even Democrats had to concede the long odds now facing them. They turned their attention to a political battle that will rage until the November elections.
"This was a historic afternoon," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.
"Republicans chose to kill the bill today. They killed it. Their fingerprints are on the bill, and they're going to have to explain it to the American people."
Yesterday's vote was seen as a tremendous victory for the tobacco industry, which has been under enormous attack since the admissions by industry officials in recent years that they knew they were marketing an addictive substance that is often lethal.
"This vote reflects the strong public sentiment that what was contained in the bill would not work," said industry spokesman Steve Duchesne.
The sweeping legislation was the direct descendant of a breathtaking, $385 billion settlement reached almost exactly a year ago between the tobacco companies and 40 state attorneys general suing to recover the costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses.
The bill would have launched nationwide smoking-cessation and anti-tobacco education campaigns, granted the Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco, and raised at least $516 billion over 25 years through a $1.10-per-pack cigarette tax increase.
Republican amendments attached in the past weeks also would have financed anti-drug efforts, limited attorneys' fees and provided a significant tax cut to married couples earning $50,000 or less. Democrats had pet amendments of their own, directing billions of dollars to child care and stripping the legislation of legal protections for the industry.
But in a crushing blow to the bill's prospects, the tobacco companies walked away from negotiations in April.
A united industry promptly launched a relentless drive to kill the legislation, with an army of 208 lobbyists and $40 million advertising campaign that painted the legislation as a massive tax increase driven more by Washington greed than any desire to reduce teen smoking.
That campaign, coupled with delaying tactics by conservatives opposing the tax increase, helped wear down a Senate majority that seemed unstoppable only last month.
Republicans locked in tight re-election battles once feared they would be painted as toadies to the tobacco industry, especially those such as New York Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato and Missouri Sen. Christopher S. Bond, who have taken campaign contributions from the cigarette makers.
But the filibuster gave D'Amato high-profile opportunities to cast votes for anti-tobacco amendments, giving him shelter from a possible political storm in the fall.
"The tobacco ads really provided cover for those who have wanted to kill this bill," said Matthew Myers of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who helped negotiate the bill. "I don't know about the big government line, but the tax stuff has hit home."
Ultimately, it took a parliamentary maneuver to bring the bill down. Republicans objected that the bill violated last year's balanced budget act, which established strict caps on spending that the bill would easily exceed.
A motion to waive the budget act failed, 53-46, seven votes short of the 60 needed. That automatically sent the bill back to the Senate commerce committee. The committee's chairman, John McCain of Arizona, who was also the bill's leading Republican sponsor, said there was no way to resurrect it.
"The tobacco companies have made a very wise investment, and they have won," McCain said. "I will not try to keep alive something that we cannot keep alive."
Mississippi Attorney General Michael Moore, who brought the first state suit against the companies and helped forge last June's settlement, was upbeat despite yesterday's Senate defeat.
"This job may have been too tough for the U.S. Congress, but the attorneys general are going to get this job done if it has to be done state by state by state," he said.
Tobacco companies have already settled the strongest of state suits -- in his state of Mississippi, plus Florida, Texas and Minnesota. Court battles in 37 states remain, including Maryland.
Pub Date: 6/18/98