House votes to bar tobacco suit aid

Tuesday, June 20th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House vowed to ``very aggressively'' battle congressional efforts to block funds for the huge federal lawsuit against the tobacco industry after the House voted to bar the Justice Department from asking another agency to help pick up the tab.

The House voted 207-197 Monday to affirm language in a spending bill that would block the Department of Veterans Affairs from contributing $4 million toward the cost of prosecuting the suit.

Attorney General Janet Reno had said hours earlier that without financial help from other agencies, the Justice Department could not afford next year's projected $26.2 million cost of the legal action. That would leave her ``no choice but to seek to dismiss this litigation,'' she said.

Seeking to heap election-year pressure on lawmakers, President Clinton said in a written statement that ``Congress will be capitulating to the tobacco industry once again at the expense of taxpayers and their children.''

And Linda Ricci, spokeswoman for the White House budget office, said after the vote that there was a long way to go in the battle. She noted that the administration has threatened to veto the bill containing the lawsuit language, and that similar provisions exist in other House and Senate bills.

``There are a lot of fights to come, and we are going to wage them very aggressively,'' she said.

Such words did not deter most lawmakers, who heeded warnings from proponents of blocking the funds transfer. The $4 million was to come from $20.3 billion in the spending bill covering the Veterans Affairs Department's medical care account, which includes money for some of the agency's legal costs.

``If you support this amendment, you're going to take millions of dollars out of veterans' health care,'' said Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., author of the bill containing the provision.

In a letter distributed at Reno's news conference before the vote, four veterans groups urged lawmakers to ``resist efforts to attempt to restrict funding'' for the Justice Department suit. The groups were AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America and Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

Under current plans, the Justice Department would pay for $14.2 million of the suit's $26.2 million cost next year. The remaining $12 million would be divided evenly among the departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, and Health and Human Services.

The government is spending $13.8 million this year, $5.8 million from Justice and the rest from the same three agencies.

Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., said the suit was ``an improper use of the Department of Justice to try and do things driven by personal political agendas ... that continue to attack tobacco farmers and people who make a living in the tobacco industry.''

Thirty-three Democrats and 34 Republicans defected in the mostly party-line roll call, mainly Democrats from tobacco-growing states and GOP moderates.

William Corr, executive vice president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an anti-tobacco lobby, said the vote ``demonstrates the House leadership lacks the votes to override'' a Clinton veto of the bill. With all House members voting, it would take 290 votes, a two-thirds majority, to override a veto.

Even so, the vote represented at least a temporary victory for the major cigarette companies, which have billions of dollars at stake in the federal lawsuit and are contesting it. Tobacco companies have reached a $246 billion settlement with the states in a similar lawsuit.

Before Monday's vote, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chief sponsor of the unsuccessful effort to kill the provision, said he would have to ``regroup'' if his attempt failed. He was hoping to build momentum to delete similar provisions from other bills.

The language was included in a $101.1 billion measure financing veterans, housing, environment and space programs for fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1.

The Justice Department filed its lawsuit in September. At the time, Reno said federal health plans pay more than $20 billion annually treating smoking-related diseases, which kill 400,000 Americans a year.

The government says that for 45 years, tobacco companies conspired to mislead the public about the health perils of smoking.

Industry lawyers have called the lawsuit ``blatantly political'' and ``the height of hypocrisy'' because the government warned the public of smoking dangers in the 1960s. Tobacco companies have also challenged the government's right to recover payments it has made under Medicare.