A Senate committee's approval of a bill that would levy billions of dollars from the tobacco industry will set up a healthcare funding battle when Congress returns to work in mid-April.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee last week OK'd a bill that would require the tobacco industry to pay $506 billion over 25 years to a federal trust fund as part of a national settlement of lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers. The bill does not specify how the money is to be spent but suggests it be used for smoking prevention and cessation, as well as reimbursement to Medicare and other public health programs for the cost of tobacco-related illnesses.
Senate leaders said they expect spending priorities to be determined by amendments to the tobacco bill when it's considered by the full Senate.
The committee passed the national tobacco settlement bill while the full Senate debated and passed a budget resolution for federal fiscal 1999. The budget plan calls for tobacco settlement money to be placed in reserve, with payments used exclusively to rejuvenate the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund.
Senate leaders said last week that the two bills would not conflict and in fact would help ensure broad support for any amendment to the tobacco bill that designated spending from the settlement trust fund.
That broad support would be needed because Senate rules require 60 votes in favor of any amendment or bill that conflicts with the budget resolution.
"It will require a bipartisan vote," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Commerce Committee and principal author of the tobacco legislation.
The budget resolution also conflicts with the priorities Clinton laid out in his budget plan, which called for funding child-care and education programs from tobacco settlement money.
Bruce Reed, chairman of Clinton's Domestic Policy Council, said tobacco spending "should not be dictated by the budget resolution."
Late last week, Clinton said he was "very concerned that the budget plan . . . will squeeze out critical investments."
As it considered the budget resolution, the Senate fought off efforts to earmark tobacco funds for purposes other than Medicare.
The Senate defeated amendments by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the leader of a Democratic tobacco task force, Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to designate tobacco settlement money for such purposes as prevention and cessation of tobacco use, assistance to tobacco farmers and related health research.
Dorgan's amendment was defeated when proposed in the Commerce Committee as an addition to the tobacco settlement bill, but a spokeswoman for Dorgan said he plans to offer it again when the tobacco bill is debated by the full Senate.