The debate over tobacco legislation rages on at Congress. At issue, whether the bill should limit the tobacco companies liability to a maximum of $8 billion in any one year. Kwame Holme reports.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today the Senate debated one of the more sensitive parts of the tobacco bill-legal protection from damage awards for the tobacco companies. The current bill would limit the company's liability to a maximum of $8 billion in any one year. But this morning, New Hampshire Republican Judd Gregg and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy argued tobacco companies should have no protection at all from liability lawsuits.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: We should protect the health of the people of this country. We should protect the children of this country, and we should not be giving special limits on legal liability to big tobacco. I disagree with those on both sides of the aisle who would limit some of the liability of the tobacco companies. If the tobacco companies hadn't faced unlimited liability for their actions, we wouldn't be here today. If the tobacco companies didn't know that they could be sued and sued successfully, they never would have admitted some of the things that now come out. If the tobacco companies had not faced this, we never would have found out the years that they had lied. We never would have found out the internal memos where they were targeting 14-year-olds.
KWAME HOLMAN: Leahy and Gregg had some support.
SEN. PAUL WELLSTONE, (D) Minnesota: I don't believe that an industry that has walked away from an agreement and has really willfully targeted our children, willfully really caused a tremendous amount of pain among children and their families, really brought about the addiction of children to tobacco, and too many citizens died an early death. I don't think they deserve any immunity at all. I don't think we should give this industry any special deal.
KWAME HOLMAN: But other Senators came to the floor to argue against lifting the cap, although they argued from different perspectives. Oklahoma Republican Don Nickles said lifting the liability cap simply puts money in the pockets of lawyers.
SEN. DON NICKLES, (R) Oklahoma: The clear winners are trial attorneys. The clear losers are consumers, are low-income smokers; they are the losers. The trial attorneys are the victims. They are the winners. They win big time. They become millionaires, billionaires maybe in some instances.
KWAME HOLMAN: While Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry insisted even with the caps contained in the current bill, tobacco companies still would be exposed to lawsuits.
SEN. JOHN KERRY, (D) Massachusetts: There's no immunities in this bill, none, zero immunity. The tobacco companies will be liable to lawsuits under any circumstances, whether they play in the tent, or they're out of the tent, they are liable for lawsuits. The only distinction here is if those lawsuits are successful, how much will they be required to pay out in one year? That's the only thing that is contained here that's some kind of a limitation. Instead of being required conceivably to pay out $20 billion in one year and go bankrupt so you have no payments to kids, there's a limitation of $8 billion. Now, if the court finds that you're liable for $20 billion and there's no finding of liability in the next year in the court, they're going to have to pay the difference. The $8 billion from the $20 billion, they're still going to have to come in and pay an additional $12 billion and they'll pay up to $8 billion in the next year. This is rational, in my judgment, Mr. President.
KWAME HOLMAN: Utah's Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, argued for even more liability protection for tobacco companies.
SEN. ORRIN HATCH: There's no doubt in my mind that the only way this is ever going to work without 10 years of litigation, 10 million more kids down the drain, and an ultimate decision by the courts that this bill is currently being argued on the floor is unconstitutional is to get back to as close to the attorney generals agreement as we can. Yes, we can add some money to that agreement. It can be higher than the 386.5, but it should be a reasonable amount that gets the companies back on board. There's no guarantee by anybody that the companies are going to come back on board, but I think there's a pretty good guarantee that they won't come back on board for the moneys that are called for in this particular bill, or the provisions called for in this particular bill, or without the incentives of having some form of limited liability that's more than just an $8 billion cap per year. If it can't reasonably do these things, then why in the world-why in the world should they come back?
KWAME HOLMAN: Fellow Republican Judd Gregg disagreed with Hatch's argument.
SEN. JUDD GREGG, (R) New Hampshire: It was interesting that the Senator from Utah, who's very familiar with this issue, said that even the caps, as it's presently structured, aren't strong enough to bring-they aren't enough protection to the tobacco industries to bring them back to the table, that they don't do enough, that they don't go far enough. That's an interesting comment, because what we do know is that the tobacco companies are not at the table right now. In fact, we know from the statement of the chairman of one of the tobacco companies that they have walked away from the table and to quote him, there is no process which is even remotely likely to lead to an acceptable comprehensive solution this year. So, they're not planning to come back to the table. And yet, here we have this deal which has been made, as I mentioned earlier, the deal with the devil, the producers of this product which kills people and addicts people, and the devil walked away from the table, and now we have the unseemly situation of the United States Congress chasing after the devil saying, please, take my plan, please take it, take it, please, please take this protection that we're offering. It really is unseemly. It's inappropriate, and more importantly doesn't make any sense.
KWAME HOLMAN: Nonetheless, the Gregg-Leahy amendment was defeated. Now the Senate heads into its Memorial Day recess for a week-long break before taking up the tobacco bill again next month.