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Clinton Will Endorse Tobacco Bill With $1.50 Cigarette Tax

By Saundra Torry and
John F. Harris
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The White House has decided to embrace a tough tobacco settlement bill that would impose a $1.50-per-pack tax on cigarettes over the next three years and give the tobacco industry little of the protection from lawsuits it has been seeking.

Vice President Gore is scheduled to attend a news conference Wednesday where the bill will be formally unveiled, signaling the administration's support for legislation that would raise cigarette taxes far faster than envisioned by the president's budget.

The administration's blessing of the bill, written by a Senate Democratic task force led by Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., would begin to set the parameters of the Senate debate on the complex and explosive issue of a national tobacco settlement policy. Two bills introduced by Republican senators call for far smaller payments from the tobacco industry and give the industry broader protection from the massive lawsuits it is facing.

Conrad "had a choice between pushing something partisan or pushing something that had a chance of passage, and they chose the former," said one Democratic source. It's "disappointing" that they "are trying to make this a partisan issue, and it's not a step forward toward passing a bill this year."

Conrad was set to present the bill to Democratic senators at their weekly caucus Tuesday and has been working to rally support for the bill beyond the 21-member tobacco task force, according to Senate sources.

The bill treats the tobacco industry more harshly than the proposed June 20 settlement between the industry, state attorneys general and trial lawyers. For instance, the industry is seeking a ban on future lawsuits by small groups of individuals or huge classes of smokers. But the Conrad bill would settle only suits brought by government entities, such as the more than 40 cases filed by state attorneys general, according to a summary of the bill.

Conrad's bill also gives the Food and Drug Administration wide-ranging authority to regulate tobacco products - broader authority than in the June 20 deal or Republican legislation. It penalizes the industry harshly if it fails to meet targets to reduce youth smoking by 65 percent in 10 years.

For the administration, it is critical that tobacco legislation pass. Clinton views passage of a comprehensive settlement as an achievement that would burnish his legacy.