June 10, 1997
Today President Clinton accepted a tax cut amendment proposed by Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas. Meanwhile, attempts to cut off debate and force a vote failed. Kwame Holman has the report.
KWAME HOLMAN: Just a few weeks ago it was widely believed tobacco legislation would attract broad bipartisan support on Capitol Hill because of its simple, popular, and frequently stated purpose, reducing teen smoking. But after weeks of crafting in the Senate, the tobacco bill has taken on a number of other goals and become increasingly complex.
SEN. TRENT LOTT, Majority Leader: The fact that the bill just continues to get worse and worse and worse-there's a point, you know, at which you say, this thing is not, you know, capable of being resurrected.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE, Minority Leader: We've tried the cooperation route. We've tried to-you know, in good faith-negotiate solutions and compromises that we think both sides could live with, but they don't seem to be interested in doing that.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate's bill, sponsored by Arizona Republican John McCain, truly is a work in progress. Simply put, it would raise federal cigarette taxes by $1.10 a pack. Overall, the bill would require tobacco companies to pay the federal government $516 billion over 25 years. But deciding what the government should do with all of that money has slowed the debate considerably. Democrats support language in the McCain bill that calls for the $516 billion to fund medical research, public health education on the dangers of smoking, and to reimburse states for their costs of treating smoking-related illnesses and provide financial relief to tobacco farmers. But a number of Republicans have come forward with other ideas on how to spend the money. Phil Gramm of Texas proposed using some of the money for a tax cut.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM, (R) Texas: So we're going to take a portion, a substantial portion of the money and give it back to blue collar workers by repealing the marriage penalty for couples that make $50,000 a year or less. The reason that I focused in on $50,000 and below in this bill is that smoking in America today is predominantly a blue-collar phenomenon. 75 percent of these taxes will be paid by people who make $50,000 or less.
KWAME HOLMAN: And Georgia's Paul Coverdell proposed using some of the money for the war on drugs.
SEN. PAUL COVERDELL, (R) Georgia: The first war that had ever been waged against kids that we're in the middle of, and so we suggest an amendment that if this legislation becomes law, 20 percent of the resources-20 percent-ought to be focused on the nation's number one problem. I think that leaves 80 percent to deal with what is among families and teenagers the eighth most serious problem.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrats charged the Republicans' proposal would, in effect, kill tobacco legislation.
SEN. JOHN KERRY, (D) Massachusetts: If all we're going to do is come to the floor and fight about these amendments that carve out and carve out, there's a whole lot of issues involved in them that have already proven very tricky and very contentious and very divisive on the Senate floor in previous incarnations. If we keep revisiting them, one can only interpret that, unfortunately, as an effort to try to derail or slow down or stop the fundamental legislation that we're trying to achieve ourselves.
KWAME HOLMAN: Yesterday afternoon Senators showed just how far they are from agreeing on comprehensive tobacco legislation. An effort by Democrats to get cloture, to end debate, and force a vote on tobacco failed miserably. That led to more accusatory rhetoric.
SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D) Illinois: We are currently debating the Coverdell amendment to the Durbin amendment to the grand motion to recommit with two underlying Gregg amendments also still pending. Hard to follow? It is designed to be hard to follow. It is designed to tangle us up in procedures so we never get to vote on this bill and never vote on this issue. Now the tobacco companies have to be cheering after that last vote.
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT, (R) Missouri: Some say this is legislation that is dead or dying and the cloture is needed to salvage this legislation. Well, that's the mind set of people who are afraid that the details of the legislation will be exposed to the American people, and, as a result, the American people would no longer support the measure.
KWAME HOLMAN: Just as it looked as if the Senate could make no more progress on the tobacco issue, President Clinton intervened. Late yesterday afternoon, after signing the highway bill into law, the president abruptly announced he had convinced each of the two Senate leaders to give a little.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I talked to Sen. Lott today, and I want to thank him and, in his absence, Sen. Daschle, for the agreements which have been made today to allow votes to proceed on the tobacco legislation. I thank you, sir. We have another chance to save a million lives, reduce youth smoking, and make a massive contribution to the public health of America.
KWAME HOLMAN: The President's intervention might not have changed any Senator's position on tobacco issues, but apparently, it did help convince Senators to move ahead and vote on important amendment.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: And the important thing was to try to come to an agreement that would get some votes on these important issues. This gets us started in that direction, and I think that is positive.
KWAME HOLMAN: Early last evening on a party line vote the Senate agreed to spend $15 billion included in the tobacco bill for Senator Coverdell's proposal to fight teenage drug use. The Senate then defeated the Democrats' alternative plan. Win or lose-Senators on all sides considered the vote a sign of progress.
SEN. JOHN KERRY: And I'm certainly appreciate of the fact that we're able to proceed forward with a couple of votes here. I think this is an important beginning of our efforts to be able to really tie down narrowly some of the most contentious issues and to be able to lay out, hopefully, an agenda for the rest of the week.
KWAME HOLMAN: Today the Senate moved on to debate Sen. Gramm's proposed tax cuts, but Gramm too agreed to compromise and scaled back the size of his proposal. And now it has the support of the president and other Democrats.
SEN. TOM DASCHLE: I think he's come a long way. And I appreciate the fact that he has, but I still think he's spending too much on tax cuts at the expense of public health, at the expense of research, at the expense of farmers, and at the expense of states.
KWAME HOLMAN: Despite the progress, Daschle and other Senators warn the effort to complete tobacco legislation still could fall apart.