Clinton Pressures House on Tobacco
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Clinton pressured the House on Thursday to give the Justice Department enough money to pursue its huge lawsuit against the tobacco industry. ``Let the American people have their day in court,'' the president said.
Just days after the House voted to block some funds for the suit and then abruptly reversed itself, lawmakers prepared to revisit the issue, which carries enormous financial stakes. Federal officials said the suit could recover as much as the $246 billion settlement the states reached with cigarette makers.
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., was trying to ease legislation that would forbid the Justice Department from accepting $12 million from other agencies to help pay its legal costs. Attorney General Janet Reno has said that without that money, the department could not afford the suit and would have to drop it.
The government wants to recover costs, estimated to exceed $20 billion annually, that it says it has incurred treating smoking-related illnesses.
But before House debate began Thursday, Clinton attacked the cigarette industry.
``The tobacco companies and their powerful allies in Congress are working overtime to pass special protections to shield them from financial responsibility for the harm they've caused,'' Clinton said as he left the White House on a Western trip.
``So again I ask Congress, just let the American people have their day in court. The legal responsibility of the tobacco companies should be decided by a judicial process, not by the political process.''
Opponents said Clinton's remarks and Waxman's amendment were an election-year effort against an unpopular target.
``This is just absolutely a disingenuous way to reach a political goal for Henry Waxman and the Clinton administration,'' Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., said in an interview. He said their goal is ``to destroy, to eliminate, to wipe off the radar screen the tobacco industry, farmers and everyone connected with the industry.''
At issue was legislation that would prohibit the Justice Department from accepting money from other agencies to defray the cost of suits filed by the department. Waxman was trying to amend the language to exempt suits filed by last Jan. 1, which would let the tobacco lawsuit continue.
The Justice Department's legal bills for the suit are expected to hit $40 million for 2000 and 2001 alone. The department wants the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Defense to contribute $4 million each next year to help pay the bill.
Monday night, the House voted 207-197 to prohibit the Justice Department from accepting $4 million from veterans medical care programs. The next day, the House, by voice vote, let the $4 million come instead from the Department of Veterans Affairs' general operating budget.
The tobacco fight came as the House worked through a $35.5 billion measure financing the Departments of Justice, Commerce and State. The Senate has not written its version of the bill.
The White House has threatened to veto the measure because of its tobacco language and because it would cut Clinton proposals for hiring local gun-crime prosecutors and police officers, legal aid for the poor, high-technology incentives for industry, and payments for U.N. peacekeeping missions.
In early action, the House voted by voice to more than double the $141 million the bill had provided for the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal help for low-income people.
Lawmakers added $134 million to bring the agency, a favorite target of many Republicans, to $275 million. That is still $30 million below this year's level and $65 million less than Clinton's request.
Earlier, the House voted 373-50 to approve a $1.9 billion measure financing Congress' own operations. The vote came after lawmakers added $96 million to head off cuts in legislators' aides and Capitol police an earlier version would have forced.
They also voted 235-184 to reject a conservative effort led by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that would have automatically steered cuts in spending bills to debt reduction. Currently, they are usually used for other programs in the bill.