House OKs Funds for Tobacco Lawsuit

Friday, June 23rd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Dealing a blow to the tobacco industry, the House voted Friday to provide money to the Justice Department to pursue a multibillion-dollar lawsuit against cigarette-makers.

With a potential settlement worth billions of dollars at stake, the House voted 215-183 let the Justice Department accept $12 million from other agencies to help foot the bill for the tobacco action. Without the money, Attorney General Janet Reno has said her agency would have to drop the suit, which it filed in September.

The drive to scuttle the lawsuit, led by a coalition of Republicans and tobacco-state Democrats, faced a questionable fate even had the House voted to block the funds. President Clinton had called on lawmakers to keep the litigation alive, and had threatened to veto the spending bill containing the tobacco provision. In addition, it is unclear whether the yet-unwritten Senate version of the spending measure will contain a similar provision.

Even so, the issue was fought so hard that Friday's vote was the third on the matter in the House this week.

The election-year vote had political overtones as it forced lawmakers to go on record about an industry that is unpopular among many voters, but treasured as a major part of the economy in tobacco-growing regions of the Southeast.

``This case is not about the law, but about the federal government extorting money from an industry it does not like,'' said Rep. Ron Lewis, R-Ky. ``Which industry will be the next victim of this punitive action?''

But Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., leader of the effort to thwart the GOP language, called the tobacco industry ``the least deserving industry in America,'' saying it had ``targeted our children ... manipulated nicotine to keep smokers addicted ... deceived and lied to the public for decades.''

President Clinton weighed in on Thursday, accusing the cigarette companies of ``working overtime to pass special protections to shield them from financial responsibility for the harm they've caused.''

The lawsuit seeks to recover costs the government said it has incurred from decades of helping Americans with smoking-related illnesses, a price tag federal officials say exceeds $20 billion annually.

A provision in a $35.5 billion measure financing the departments of Commerce, State and Justice would forbid the Justice Department to accept financial help from other agencies for suits the government has filed.

Waxman's amendment would exempt suits filed before last Jan. 1, which he said would affect only one action: the tobacco litigation.

The White House has threatened a veto because of the tobacco language and cuts in Clinton proposals for hiring local gun-crime prosecutors and police officers, legal aid for the poor, and payments for U.N. peacekeeping missions.

The Justice Department's bills for the suit are expected to be $40 million for 2000 and 2001 alone. The department wants the departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Defense to contribute $4 million each next year to help pay the bill.

On Monday, the House voted to block Justice from receiving $4 million from Veterans Affairs, only to reverse itself the next day.

The showdown came as the Senate grappled over legislation on prescription drugs and worker-protection regulations. Both issues are more likely to be the stuff of veto fights or campaign commercials than to be enacted into law.

On Thursday, the Senate used a mostly party-line 53-44 vote to reject a Democratic plan for creating a new prescription drug benefit under Medicare.

The measure was preordained for defeat in the Republican-controlled Senate. But Democrats were happy to showcase their plan and contrast it with a GOP alternative pushed through the House Ways and Means Committee a day earlier. The GOP package would subsidize private insurers to encourage them to provide their own coverage plans.

Forty-two Democrats and two Republicans, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, voted for the proposal. There were 52 Republicans and Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana opposed. Not voting were Democrats Barbara Boxer of California and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, plus Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado.

The Democratic plan would require participants to pay monthly premiums of about $35 and a $250 annual deductible. In exchange, the government would subsidize the costs of purchasing beneficiaries' drugs.

Minutes earlier, the Senate voted 57-41 to block proposed Clinton administration rules that would require employers to take extra steps to prevent repetitive motion injuries in the workplace. The rules are expected by year's end.

Democrats said the regulations could prevent many of the 1.8 million such injuries that occur every year. But Republicans said the rules would be too expensive, are not based on sound science and might usurp state worker compensation laws.

The approved language would block the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's proposed rules until October 2001 — after Clinton has left office.

The House approved a bill with similar language two weeks ago. The White House has threatened a veto.

Democratic Sens. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina, John Breaux of Louisiana and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas supported blocking the new rules. The only GOP defector was Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Boxer and Inouye missed the vote.