Senator Trent Lott convinced fellow Republicans to rewrite new tobacco legislation just hours before the bill was brought to the floor. Kwame Holman has the story.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Ernest Hollings from tobacco growing South Carolina last night was outraged to discover Majority Leader Trent Lott had convinced fellow Republicans to rewrite sweeping new tobacco legislation just hours before the bill was brought to the floor.
SEN. ERNEST HOLLINGS, (D) South Carolina: Until now, about half hour ago, and I have had a chance to talk, of course, just a bit with the Majority Leader, until now, nothing has been said, this kind of conduct and course of conduct is just the worst I've seen in my 30 some years up here.
KWAME HOLMAN: On April 1st, the Senate Commerce Committee, under the leadership of Arizona Republican John McCain, approved a bill that would raise cigarette prices by more than $1 a pack, give government authority to regulate nicotine, restrict tobacco advertising, and force tobacco companies to reduce teen smoking or pay billions of dollars in penalties. The bill also provided some protection for Sen. Hollings' tobacco farmers. The committee approved the bill nineteen to one. But late yesterday, Lott, acting on a request by Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, quietly convinced a majority of Commerce Committee members to add an amendment to the bill that would end 68 years of government price support payments to tobacco farmers. Hollings objected to Lott's maneuver but there was little he could do.
SEN. ERNEST HOLLINGS: The Lugar bill, veritably, by a majority vote, puts that farmer out of business. I would question, respectfully, that the majority leader identify the majority of the Commerce Committee members. Is that all your Republicans, is that what you're saying?
SPOKESMAN: Yes, it is, Mr. Chairman.
SEN. ERNEST HOLLINGS: Well, I am dismayed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Kentucky Democrat Wendell Ford also was dismayed.
SEN. WENDELL FORD, (D) Kentucky: You're going to see the farmers come in here tomorrow because they're opposed to Lugar. You can have all the misgivings you want. There can be ghosts behind every tombstone about the future, but you have to lay groundwork. And I say to the majority leader, with all respect, if this is done to us, it's going to be-I'm going to make it as difficult as I can to see that the bill is not passed this week and probably not in June.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Ford made it clear his anger was directed at the majority leader, not at Commerce Committee Chairman McCain.
SEN. WENDELL FORD: The chairman of the Commerce Committee has been as straight with me and as straight with us as he could be. I find no fault with what he's attempted to do because some things that we can't agree on were not disagreeable. He's always been-everything's been on top of the table with us. And his word has been good as gold. His word has been his bond. And now for him to have the majority leader take over all this hard work that he's doing and say to the chairman of the committee and to us, who work to cooperate, that what you did in your cooperation is for naught.
KWAME HOLMAN: Lott, who listened to both senators without interruption, then took the floor and defended his action.
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: It's my job as majority leader to try to find a responsible way to move this forward, to get it to the floor in the fairest possible way, and there's no way to do that without some people feeling like, well, it's not exactly the way I wanted it, or it doesn't give me a fair position, or it doesn't give me more than a fair position. All I want is an advantage. Now, the senator from Indiana is chairman of the Agriculture Committee. It seems rational to me that you would understand that as majority leader, I would be interested in concern in the position or an amendment to be offered on this important piece of legislation by the chairman of the Agriculture Committee. I don't think we ought to start off by saying, well, if we don't get this or don't get that, we're going to kill it. I don't think anybody wants that to happen on your side of the aisle. Let's go forward. Let's have some amendments, and let's see where the votes are. That's the way to do this.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. McCain then came to the floor appearing somewhat caught in the middle.
SEN. JOHN MC CAIN, Chairman, Commerce Committee: This is a difficult situation and not the first that we have been through in this process, nor, regrettably, will it be the last. I have great sympathy for my two dear friends--one from Kentucky and one from South Carolina-who have fought very hard for the people they represent. I also understand-and I think we all should-the position of the majority leader, who has, despite the predictions of many, has been steadfast throughout as far as saying that this bill would come to the floor and we would resolve it if there was anything within his power to do so.
KWAME HOLMAN: McCain then officially opened debate on what could be historic tobacco legislation, with the stated goal of reducing teen smoking. He spoke for 30 minutes and concluded with an assault on the tobacco companies.
SEN. JOHN MC CAIN. Mr. President, I asserted earlier that tobacco companies have long sought refuge in lies. They have lied about the effects of their product and about the strategies they use to market them. They are lying about the purposes and effect of the bill we are now considering. They have spared no expense to cover their purposes with lies. They have lied, no matter the cost to public health. They have sacrificed the truth in our children to their grief. They have lied because lying has been profitable, Mr. President, because lying worked. No more, no more. The lying stops today. Mr. President, I yield.
KWAME HOLMAN: But when the Senate resumed debate this morning, Texas Republican Phil Gramm proceeded to pick apart some of the particulars in McCain's bill, including the increased tax on a pack of cigarettes.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM, (R) Texas: Now, who pays this tax? Well, I would like to suggest that my colleagues ought to go out in Washington, D.C., and walk the streets and try to take a look at who's smoking. Well, what they're going to find when they do that is that basically smoking in America, while there are exceptions to every rule, smoking today is basically a blue collar phenomenon. And so every penny for all practical purposes of hundreds of billions of dollars we're going to collect is coming from real, honest to God people who are buying tobacco products, the very victims of conspiracy that this bill is to rectify.
KWAME HOLMAN: And North Carolina Republican Lauch Faircloth proposed an amendment that would limit the amount of money attorneys can receive for their participation in creating the tobacco bill.
SEN. LAUCH FAIRCLOTH, (R) North Carolina: Mr. President, I'm all for this important amendment because we cannot allow this tobacco bill to run into a pot of gold, a wheel of fortune for trial lawyers. And that's exactly what is happening to it. That is why my amendment caps attorney's fees at $250 per hour. I can't imagine anybody opposing paying lawyers $250 an hour. Under the current bill trial lawyers will get some $4 billion a year, and that's billion dollars a year.
KWAME HOLMAN: Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin defended the lawyers.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, (D) Illinois: Were it not for these attorneys there'd be no McCain bill on the floor this week. Were it not for these attorneys, there would have been no state lawsuit, were it not for these attorneys, these tobacco companies would continue to make billions of dollars, would continue to exploit our children, would continue to be the source of the number one preventable cause of death in America, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. So it's no wonder that the Senator from North Carolina wants to get even with these attorneys, they have upset the apple cart for tobacco row.
KWAME HOLMAN: That view prevailed late today as the Senate turned back the effort to limit lawyers' fees. There are, however, dozens of other contentious, still unresolved issues for Senators to consider as they try to get as much work done on the tobacco bill as they can before the Memorial Day recess.