House to Vote on Tobacco Lawsuit Funding
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno strongly appealed on Monday for Congress to fund the landmark U.S. lawsuit against the tobacco industry, saying the government might have to drop the case without the money.
Funding for the lawsuit is expected to be debated in several of the annual spending bills, with the first House vote expected as early as Monday evening. Congress denied special funding for the case in 1999. The issue is whether other federal agencies with smoking-related health bills can chip in and help the U.S. Justice Department pay for the case.
``If Congress cuts off funding for this lawsuit or interferes with the Justice Department's pursuit of the lawsuit, Congress will be capitulating to the tobacco industry once again at the expense of taxpayers and their children,'' Clinton said in a statement released as he traveled to Houston.
Reno told a news conference at the Capitol earlier in the day, ``Without these critical funds we will have no choice but to seek to dismiss this litigation. That will be a very grave disservice to the American taxpayer and to the agencies that have had to shoulder the burden of paying to treat those with tobacco-related illnesses.''
Having failed in 1999 to get a $20 million appropriation for the case, the Justice Department took advantage of a federal rule that lets other agencies help pay for legal costs if they would be affected by specific litigation.
In this case the Justice Department got money from the Veteran's Administration, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Defense Department, each of which shoulders a portion of the estimated $20 billion a year that the government spends on smoking-related illness. The department filed the lawsuit in September 1999 to try to recoup some of those health costs, as states did in their own suits against the industry.
But Republicans and lawmakers from tobacco-growing states have opposed the Justice Department's move as improper. They said that federal rule about cost-sharing should apply when the government is the defendant, not the initiator of litigation. They have also objected to the overall cost of the case, which could approach $60 million over three years.
``This issue is about the power of the purse, which we strongly believe rests with Congress -- specifically the Appropriations Committee. We cannot stand by and allow a Justice Department money grab into such vital accounts as Veterans health care and the Defense health program,'' said two of the key House appropriations subcommittee chairmen, Kentucky Republican Hal Rogers and New York Republican Jim Walsh.
The Senate has similar language blocking the lawsuit in one of its annual spending bills, but it is not yet clear whether opponents will be able to remove or soften it.
Among those named in the government suit were Philip Morris Cos. Inc.; R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.; Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.; British-American Tobacco Plc; Loews Corp.'s Lorillard Tobacco Co. Inc.; Brooke Group Ltd.'s Liggett Group Inc.; the Council for Tobacco Research U.S.A. Inc.; and the Tobacco Institute Inc.
The lawsuit sought to recover money under two laws that apply to Medicare, the federal health care program for the elderly and others, and health programs for U.S. military personnel. The suit also invoked the federal racketeering law to seek to force the tobacco firms to give up their profits.