NEWSMAKER: SEN. JOHN McCAIN
April 21, 1998
Senate Republicans have criticized the sweeping tobacco legislation proposed by Sen. John McCain. In a Newsmaker interview, Sen. McCain, chair of the Commerce Committee, discusses his troubled bill.
PHIL PONCE: Senator John McCain went to the White House today as plans for comprehensive anti-smoking legislation have hit a series of roadblocks. On April 1st, the Senate Commerce Committee chaired by McCain passed its own tobacco legislation. That proposed bill would generate more than $500 billion dollars by raising the tax on cigarettes $1.10 within five years, restrict advertising by tobacco companies, impose major monetary penalties against the industry if there is not a decrease in teen smoking, and give the federal drug administration broad authority. But it did not protect cigarette makers from future class action lawsuits. The tobacco industry immediately vowed to fight the proposed legislation, claiming that it violated terms of the original deal between 40 state attorneys general and the tobacco companies.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
April 9, 1998
President Clinton brings the tobacco debate to tobacco country.
April 8, 1998
The tobacco industry withdraws its support for the Congressional tobacco legislation.
March 12, 1998
President Clinton endorses the bipartisan tobacco proposal.
January 29, 1998
Steven Goldstone, the CEO of RJR Nabisco, acknowledges the health risk of tobacco products.
January 16, 1998
Texas and Minnesota have suits pending against the tobacco companies.
January 15, 1998
Documents show R.J. Reynolds used Joe Camel to attract young smokers.
December 31, 1997
California bans smoking in just about all in-door public places, including bars.
August 25, 1997
Florida settles with the tobacco industry for $11.3 billion deal.
Congressman Waxman and Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal debate the tobacco settlement.
June 20, 1997
A panel discussion the tobacco settlement.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of law and health.
The Food and Drug Administration.
STEVEN GOLDSTONE, CEO RJR NABISCO: Well, instead of any real consideration of the merits of that settlement, Washington has rushed to collect more tobacco revenues while playing the politics of punishment, not only destroying the negotiated settlement but threatening to injure farming communities, retail store owners, and everyone else who participates in this $50 billion industry, as well as every adult who chooses to use these products. We are going to speak out and engage in a public policy debate on the issues that affect our industries and our customers.
Sen McCain's anti-tobacco legislation has faced a series of obstacles.
ADVERTISEMENT: Last June there was an historic resolution of tobacco issues that would change the tobacco industry and reduced under-age use of tobacco products. Now politics has taken over.
PHIL PONCE: The industry has started an ad and lobbying campaign bringing together groups such as the National Restaurant Association, tobacco farmers, and the ACLU. In recent days, Republican leaders have raised new concerns. Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott told reporters that tobacco is not a top priority for voters.
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: You know, I'm from a state that obviously has been involved in all this tobacco settlement issue, but as I travel around the state, nobody asks about that.
PHIL PONCE: Today on Capitol Hill, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has called the Senate's bill too liberal, criticized President Clinton's approach to curbing teen smoking.
REP. NEWT GINGRICH, Speaker of the House: They want bigger bureaucracies. They want higher taxes. They want more government. What does that have to do with smoking? We're prepared to pass an anti-smoking bill. We're prepared to focus on stopping kinds from smoking. Now, does the President want to stop kids from smoking, or does he want a smoke screen behind which he gets higher taxes, bigger bureaucracy, and bigger government?
PHIL PONCE: Earlier this morning President Clinton addressed the messages coming from Capitol Hill.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: All of us have been talking about trying to get bipartisan agreement on that. The tobacco industry says they don't like the McCain bill, and they refuse to negotiate any further, and their fighting for their life, and this is war. And then all of a sudden we get different public statements coming out of people in important positions in the Republican Party. I still believe and hope that there will be enough Republicans to make a genuinely bipartisan effort to pass sensible, sound, strong legislation. And that is my commitment.
JIM LEHRER: Now to Sen. John McCain, Republican of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Senator, welcome.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, what's going on?
The bill is too tough for some. For others, it's not tough enough.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I think this is kind of a natural occurrence. This is a very large bill. It's very encompassing, and there's controversy surrounding it. I think some people are very concerned for various reasons. As you know, there are some, like Sen. Kennedy and Congressman Waxman, that think it's not tough enough. Obviously, the speaker and others think that it's too tough or "too big." I think we're moving forward in a bipartisan fashion. I think we would do that, and I think we will satisfy the concerns of the American people about the fact that 3,000 kids start smoking every day and 1,000 of them are going to die early.
JIM LEHRER: Your meeting at the White House today, how would you characterize that meeting?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Very positive. We need to nail down details of the--of the bill. As you know, the White House has been generally supportive, and we needed to get the final agreement, and we're working in that direction, but also have, of course, the public health groups, the attorneys generals, the Democrats, and everybody.
JIM LEHRER: Did you make a deal with the president today? I mean, are you in sync on this bill?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think we're generally in sync. I think there's going to be a discussion about--the piece you ran earlier--about how the money is spent. I think there will be a lot of debate about the lawyers' fees. But I think the parameters of an agreement are there. Obviously, the House plays a very important role, but I hope we could move forward on the floor of the Senate. I think that Sen. Lott would like to do that, but he wouldn't like to move forward unless we have general and specific agreements.
JIM LEHRER: But do you feel you have agreement with the president on your bill?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I believe that we are ironing out the differences that we have.
Not a Republican bill?
JIM LEHRER: All right now, how do you respond basically to Speaker Gingrich? On Friday--or over the weekend--it was actually broadcast over the weekend--he said your bill was very liberal, big government, big bureaucracy, not a Republican bill. He repeated that today, a tax increase for bigger government. That's a basic charge that he has about your bill. How do you respond?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I hope that he'll examine the bill. I am a big intrigued, because a couple of weeks ago when we were in most intensive negotiations, the Speaker said that he wasn't "going to let Clinton get to the left of him on the issue." So I think there's been some shift there, but I think it's--we will work together with the Speaker and the House because I think they share our commitment on this issue.
JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to the Speaker about this?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Not recently, no.
JIM LEHRER: Do you plan to?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I'd be glad to. I have talked to others in the House. I've talked a lot with the Majority Leader and leadership here in the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: Now, the Majority Leader also said--we ran the piece--on the tape just now--he said nobody, at least in Mississippi, cares about this out in the country, at least in Mississippi.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: But I think the Majority Leader does care, and I think he would like to see us get a bill. Here's the point, I think. Everybody wants to be in agreement because we don't want a huge fight on the floor of the Senate, so there's got to be at least a majority bipartisan--along with the public health people and the administration and the attorney's generals in general agreement so that there's no devastating amendment which would bring this whole thing down. As you know, it's very complicated, and parts of it are dependent upon other parts, and not everybody's satisfied, but we--I'm an eternal optimist, as you know.
A Republican on the Democrat side of the tracks?
JIM LEHRER: Well, but the politics of this seem to be--the lines--seem to be Democrats on one side, Republicans on the other, and you're a Republican, and you seem to be on the wrong side. Am I reading that wrong?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I don't think so. I think that flies in the face of the fact that we had a 19-1 vote in the Commerce Committee. Nearly one fifth of the Senate voted in favor of this bill. Most Republicans are in favor of it. They obviously have specific concerns, but--and, again, I'm convinced from my conversations today with the Majority Leader that he would like to move forward with this bill. I think--I don't see a huge problem with Republicans, to tell you the truth. One of the problems with the Democrats is in the case of Sen. Kennedy--it's not tough enough.
JIM LEHRER: And also Doctors Koop and Kessler--former surgeon general--Dr. Koop--former head of the FDA, Dr. Kessler--the said it's not tough enough. You met with them yesterday, did you not?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Yes. And they gave me a list of the concerns that they have. They're supportive of a comprehensive solution, resolution. They gave me a letter from every previous surgeon general back to the early 70's saying we need a comprehensive settlement, and they think we can satisfy the majority of their concerns, at least we hope that we can.
JIM LEHRER: Did you hear anything from them that made you think, oh, my goodness, these guys are never going to get on board?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Oh, no, they were very appreciative of the effort that has been made, not just by me but the entire process in a bipartisan fashion, and they want to see it--a comprehensive resolution as well.
JIM LEHRER: Senator, also, as we reflected in our piece, the tobacco industry is really coming after your bill strongly, and it looks like it's going to get even stronger before this is over with. What impact is it having thus far?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, I thought it was a little bit disingenuous for them to take up the plight of the tobacco farmer. I went to South Carolina a couple of weeks ago and met with quite a few of them. But in the June 20th settlement, which was their settlement with the AG's, there was no mention of the tobacco farmers. I think they are attempting to use other entities to further their cause here because they know they themselves don't have much credibility. But I think you're going to see the public health groups and other advocacy organizations speaking out in support at least of the intent of the legislation, if not all the specifics.
JIM LEHRER: Did you and the folks at the White House discuss the need to respond to the tobacco industry assault?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, yes, but I think we're confident--and I think most of us who support the bill are confident that the American people will not be deceived by a campaign that basically flies in the face of the overwhelming majority opinion that we have to do something about kids smoking.
JIM LEHRER: And you think--you said it again tonight--you said it today--that this money issue that Speaker Gingrich and, in fact, House Majority Leader Lott also mentioned it in his news conference yesterday--that what the administration wants is to get their hands on that money and build bigger bureaucracies and all of that. Do you think you can circumvent that, you can get around that problem?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I think when you look at the amount of money--even though it's huge--you will see that the majority of that money has to be spent on youth cessation programs, reimbursement to the states, compensation for the farmers. There's not a lot of money left over. I think--and we've made it clear to the White House--that the Republicans are strongly resistant and would not agree to creation of a new entitlement program. So we're only talking about a small amount of money, and I think we've made it clear to the White House, but I also--as I said earlier--I think that will be a discussion that Sen. Lott and Speaker Gingrich have with the president.
JIM LEHRER: Now, do you have an agreement with Sen. Lott for a vote, a scheduled vote on this bill anytime soon?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Sen. Lott would like to move forward, he told me, before the end of May, but he'd also like to have this package complete. And everybody--or at least a significant majority--on board, so that we can reach a conclusion on it, and we're not quite there yet.
JIM LEHRER: You don't have a majority of the Senate with you now.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Oh, I think it's not that. I think we've got to iron out the details. For example, we had support of the White House, but they kept saying it needs improvement. Now we know the areas where they want to have it improved. And it's not a final package yet, but, look, 80 percent of the American people want us to do something about smoking, and also for a much less patriot reason, as you know, there's lots of money out there to be spent, and it is a national issue, and I think one that we will address.
JIM LEHRER: Is this on the verge of becoming a political issue between Democrats and Republicans?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I don't think so. I think that the Speaker's views are honestly held views and as are that of the White House, but I think the goal is the same, and, therefore, I think we will achieve it.
Not the least bit discouraged.
JIM LEHRER: And you're not the least big discouraged by what's happened since your bill came out of that Commerce Committee nineteen to one?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: If you would remember, the predictions of most of the pundits and most of the reporters in this town was that we would never get the bill through the Commerce Committee, if you might remember.
JIM LEHRER: I do remember that. You're right, sir.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: It doesn't have any chance. Do you remember that?
JIM LEHRER: I do indeed.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: But we worked together in a bipartisan, inclusive fashion. On an issue like these--like this one--that's the way you do it, and I'm confident that we will succeed over time, respecting the views of others and reducing these partisan attacks that are harmful to the process.
JIM LEHRER: So you're not about to give up on this?
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Never.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Senator.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Thank you.