IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Will tobacco vote hurt Republicans?

June 18 - What will be the political consequences of Senate vote to effectively kill the McCain anti-tobacco bill?
/ Source:

Will Wednesday’s Senate vote to effectively kill anti-tobacco legislation be the issue that Democrats use toregain control of Congress? Will voters hold Republicans who voted to block the bill accountable for allowing teen-agers to keep smoking? If so, Wednesday’s vote will be a truly fateful one in many senses of that word.

The vote in the Senate was 57 to 42 to terminate debate on Sen. John McCain’s anti-tobacco bill. Those voting to cut off debate wanted to move the McCain legislation to an up-or-down vote on its merits.

The McCain bill would have imposed penalties on tobacco companies if the rate of teen smoking had not declined over the next 25 years. It would also have raised the price of cigarettes by $1.10 per pack over the next five years.

The cost of the bill to the tobacco industry and thus to smokers, would have been between $755 billion and $868 billion over the next 25 years, about $30 billion a year.

Voting to end the debate on the McCain bill were 14 Republicans senators, along with 43 Democrats. Of the Republicans voting to end debate, five stand for re-election this November.

Only one of those five is in a truly competitive re-election battle: Al D’Amato of New York. He has now immunized himself against accusations of being soft on tobacco.


Forty Republicans voted to keep the bill itself from coming to a vote. Two Democrats, Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia and Wendell Ford of Kentucky, voted with the 40 Republicans.

As one scans the list of the Republicans who voted to block the McCain bill and who must face voters on Nov. 3, it’s hard to find any who’ll be hurt by their vote.

Either they represent tobacco-growing states, (Sen. Lauch Faircloth of North Carolina, for instance) or they don’t face fearsome Democratic opponents: freshman Sam Brownback of Kansas, for instance, seems to be cruising toward re-election.

The Democrats have little chance of regaining control of the Senate this year, whether they use tobacco or any other issue.

If all the breaks go their way, the best result the Democrats could manage would be a net gain of five seats, putting the new Senate evenly balanced at 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

The real significance of Wednesday’s Senate vote was what it means for control of the House of Representatives, where the GOP has a fragile 11-seat majority.

And as “an old House guy,” as he called himself Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is acutely sensitive to the needs of his House GOP colleagues. Lott served in the House from 1973 to 1989.

Lott scheduled Wednesday’s cloture motion to save his Republican House colleagues from having to cast an up-or-down vote on the McCain bill this year.

Now GOP House members who face arduous re-election battles can go home to their constituents and say, “Well, I liked some aspects of the McCain bill, but it needed a bit more work.”

Lott and House Speaker Newt Gingrich are also pushing a more modest alternative to McCain legislation.

Gingrich said Thursday Republicans will soon offer a bill to provide:

regulation of nicotine products by the Food and Drug Administration;

a prohibition against allowing tobacco companies to deduct their marketing costs on their tax returns; and

incentives to states to revoke the drivers licenses of teen-agers caught smoking.

Despite this, Democratic strategists and public heath advocates argue that the tobacco issue will gravely jeopardize Republicans in this fall’s elections.

Democrats say the predictable, as Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin did Wednesday: “Big tobacco owns the Republican party and they’ve just proven it again.”

Democrats will run ads saying that Republicans members of Congress took money from tobacco industry political action committees. Some Republicans surely did, as did some Democrats.

Today there is no more zealous foe of tobacco than Vice President Al Gore. But Gore took $16,440 in tobacco industry PAC money from 1979 to 1990.

During the 1988 North Carolina Democratic presidential primary, Gore proudly told tobacco farmers: “Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all my life, I put it in the plant beds. ... I’ve hoed it, I’ve chopped it. I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.”

Surely Republicans will be ready with those quotes when Gore hits the campaign trail and tries to use the tobacco issue.


McCain said Wednesday that it was a $40 million tobacco industry advertising blitz that swayed GOP senators who voted for an earlier version of his bill on April 1 when it was approved by the Commerce Committee by a 19-to-1 vote. (The lone dissenter: Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo.)

Five Republicans on the Commerce Committee (including Lott himself) who voted for the McCain bill on April 1, ended up voting to block the bill on Wednesday.

Senate Republican policy spokesman Gerry Fritz explained to me Thursday that the April 1 Commerce Committee vote was “to move the process forward.”

Fritz said “nobody actually saw the bill at that point. They were taking McCain’s word that was crafted with Republican concerns in mind. It turned out to be a lot different from what they imagined.”

Fritz said the committee members had seen only a summary of the bill. It is difficult to believe that the 19 senators on the Commerce Committee who voted for the bill had seen none of its details, but that is now a moot point.

What matters is: Will the voters blame Republicans for the demise of the McCain bill? Will the tobacco issue motivate health-conscious, tobacco-hating Democrats to get out and vote on Nov. 3 and will those voters be in marginal congressional districts that are now occupied by GOP incumbents?


Anti-smoking forces cite a Pew Research Center poll of 1,012 Americans conducted earlier this month about “the dispute between the tobacco industry and the federal and state governments regarding the advertising and sale of tobacco products.” When people were asked, “Who do you side with more in this dispute, the tobacco industry or the government?” 62 percent said they supported the government and 29 percent said they supported the tobacco companies.

But different polls find different results. As always, the framing of the question is crucial to the results.

Back in April, before the tobacco industry ad blizzard reached full force, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that the vast majority of Americas viewed the McCain bill as a scheme to raise new revenue for the federal government and not as a measure to deter teen smokers.

And this is the line Republicans will take from now until Nov. 3.

“In Washington, new spending is more addictive than nicotine,” said Sen. Ashcroft after Wednesday’s vote.

He added a note of defiance, “The president and the [McCain] bill’s other backers vow to campaign on the bill this fall. I say, ’Welcome to it!’ Let them explain why money should be taken from low-income families and given to federal bureaucrats and wealthy trial attorneys.”


Smoking seems to be one of those policy issues where Americans are guided by their own experiences or those of family members. Many Americans know someone who smoked cigarettes for 30 years but managed to quit. Many others know people who still can’t quit smoking and are now dying of emphysema.

But most Americans do not seem inclined to see the tobacco companies as the sole villains in this drama.

A survey by the Gallup organization last year found that 52 percent of those polled said that because the cigarette companies put warning labels on their products, they are absolved of culpability for smoking-related illness.

The McCain bill did not generate a wave of public enthusiasm to sweep it into law, even after industry documents were made public that showed how tobacco company executives had lied to Congress about the addictiveness of nicotine.

If the issue is teen smoking, McCain’s measure may have appeared too ambitious and wide of the mark.

Or as one of my readers, John Murphy of Hattiesburg, Miss., told me in an e-mail Thursday, “I smoked all through high school just because I thought it was cool and a lot of my friends did it. Besides, it gave us something to do when we couldn’t get our hands on any alcohol. ... Kids are going to try different things. It’s a part of growing up. Sooner or later, they’ll figure out what’s for them and what’s not for them.”

Murphy added: “If people think that jacking up cigarette prices a buck-ten is going to make kids stop and say, ‘hey, I just can’t afford to spend that kind of money on a pack of cigarettes,’ then they are sadly mistaken. I mean what else are they going to spend their money on? Rent, energy bills, long-term investments?”

If enough voters share Murphy’s skepticism, then the tobacco issue will end up having only a small impact on Election Day.