U.S. House OKs funds for tobacco lawsuit
WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) - The U.S. House of Representatives on Friday voted decisively to let the Justice Department take money from other federal agencies so the department can pursue its lawsuit against ``Big Tobacco.''
Earlier this week the House voted to block funding for the suit which seeks to recoup money spent on tobacco-related health costs but reversed itself one day later. On this third vote, a clear 215-183 bipartisan majority endorsed allowing the Justice Department to go ahead, at least for now.
Fifty-five Republicans joined most Democrats in supporting the amendment by California Democrat Representative Henry Waxman clearing the funding. Thirty-five Democrats joined Republicans opposing it.
There could still be tobacco-related votes on other annual spending bills in the House or Senate but the two successive wins strengthened the position of tobacco foes.
``This is the worst defeat the tobacco industry has suffered in the House of Representatives in the past decade,'' said Matt Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. ``Either house of Congress will have a hard time retreating from today's vote.''
Attorney General Janet Reno had told Congress she would have to drop the suit without these funds. President Bill Clinton, who had strongly urged Congress to approve the funds, said he was pleased by the vote.
``This action will help support the Justice Departments's litigation to recover billions of dollars in tobacco-related health costs,'' he said in a statement.
The Justice Department filed suit in 1999 against the major tobacco companies, seeking to recoup some of the $20 billion the federal government spends each year on tobacco-related illness in programmes such as Medicare and veterans' health.
Congress refused to give the Justice Department the $20 million it sought in 1999 to wage the suit. The department instead took some money from its regular budget, and also took advantage of a federal rule that lets other federal agencies directly affected by a lawsuit chip in for legal costs.
For the coming fiscal year the Justice Department wanted to use the same approach, getting $4 million apiece from the Departments of Veterans' Affairs, Health and Human Services and Defence. But House Republicans and some Democrats from tobacco-growing states tried to block it.
Opponents of the lawsuit, led by Kentucky Republican Representative Harold Rogers, chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that includes the Justice Department's budget, said the department is only allowed to get money from other agencies when the government is being sued, not when it is doing the suing.
``The Justice Department has gone too far this time,'' Rogers said in a letter to colleagues asking for their support. ``It has decided it can go after anyone it wants, for whatever reason it wants, at whatever cost it takes, and not have to pay for it out of its own budget.''
Others were even blunter, harshly attacking the department for going after the tobacco companies.
Representative Ron Lewis, a Kentucky Republican, called the suit an ``extortion of an industry'' that the government dislikes.
Representative Howard Coble, a North Carolina Republican, said, ``It appears the attorney general and the Justice Department is again attempting to insert the tobacco industry smack dab in the bull's-eye of the target and I guess the command will be fire when ready.''
But Waxman and his allies said the Justice Department was acting appropriately, and said arguments about funding mechanisms were just a smoke screen to derail the suit.
``For decades the tobacco companies have lied to us,'' said Utah Republican Representative James Hansen, a co-sponsor of Waxman's measure. ``There should be accountability for their actions.''
To underscore that point they worded their amendment to make clear the Justice Department could not take money from elsewhere to finance suits it starts in the future. But the change would not affect current suits -- meaning tobacco.
``This is not about other lawsuits. This is about the tobacco lawsuit alone,'' Waxman said.
Reno estimated about $40 million would be needed for the first two years of the suit against the big companies. The potential damages were in the billions. States that sued the industry got settlements worth $246 billion.