With or without the industry's cooperation, President Clinton and members of Congress say they will fight for legislation to force tobacco companies to pay billions of dollars to make up for practices that encourage teenagers to smoke.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whose Senate Commerce Committee approved a tobacco bill last week, scoffed at an assertion by a tobacco company executive that the much-touted national tobacco settlement between the industry and states was "dead.""Very frankly, I think Congress will act with or without the acquiescence of the tobacco companies," McCain said Thursday morning on NBC's "Today."
"I think we're a long way from, quote, `falling apart,' " McCain, chief author of the Senate bill, said Wednesday. "I am convinced that if the tobacco companies are not willing to go along with this agreement, we will still act in the best interests of the American people."
Asked Thursday if congressional action might include even higher taxes on cigarettes, McCain responded: "If necessary."
Rep. Tom Bliley, R-Va., the House Commerce Committee chairman who also is working on a bill, said the industry's position was "unfortunate but not a reason for inaction."
In a speech Wednesday criticizing the Senate bill, the White House and Congress, Steven Goldstone, chief executive officer of No. 2 tobacco maker RJR Nabisco, said brokering a settlement had become impossible and that he was abandoning the effort.
Three other tobacco companies quickly announced that they were giving up, too.
But Clinton and the lawmakers - angered by the retreat - said they remained focused on reducing youth smoking and would pursue a bill with or without the industry's support.
"I think they ought to rethink their position because we're going to get this done one way or the other," Clinton said after returning from a trip to Chicago.
"I'm not trying to put them out of business. But I am trying to put them out of the business of selling tobacco to children," added the president, who Thursday was visiting a tobacco warehouse in Kentucky. "And I think that if I were them, I would reconsider and I'd be a part of this."
"We're going to keep the pressure on, working with Congress, to get this done," White House adviser Bruce Reed said Thursday morning on "Today."
"We can take some steps to restrict cigarette advertising. It would obviously be easier to reduce teen smoking if the cigarette companies were working with us instead of against us. I think at the end of the day, the cigarette companies are going to swallow hard and come along," he said.
The tobacco companies vowed to fight efforts by Clinton and Congress to increase prices and fashion tougher restrictions on advertising.
"Those price increases will destroy the domestic tobacco business, and I don't just mean my company," Goldstone said in a speech at the National Press Club.
But Clinton and congressional leaders insisted they would press forward with efforts to pass a comprehensive law meant to curb teen smoking and compensate states for treating sick smokers - with or without the industry's cooperation.
Utah Attorney General Jan Graham remained hopeful the settlement that Utah and 39 other states signed would go forward.
"We sill are optimistic that the reform package will be able to pass," Graham said. "There have been threats and ups and downs throughout the negotiations. We will continue to move forward because the opportunity is too great to let it pass."
The window for action in Congress this year appears limited by a short schedule since both houses plan to wrap up by early October to focus on the fall elections. Fiscal 1999 spending bills also must be passed, which could leave little room on the agenda for tobacco.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., already has predicted that the tobacco bill must reach the Senate floor by June 1 or "it's going to be pretty hard" to schedule a vote later in the year.
The House is further behind in its work, although Bliley said several committees, including his own, soon would begin drafting their version of the tobacco bill.
Sen. Wendell Ford, D-Ky., said he understood the tobacco industry's frustrations. He said the tobacco company pullout "will either cause the legislative process to disintegrate or inject some needed fiscal responsibility into the debate. Only time will tell."
Others said the industry's bailout could result in even stronger legislation.
"If the industry walks away from their commitment . . . to stop tobacco marketing to children, Congress will have to take even tougher measures to accomplish those goals," House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri said.
McCain's bill would force the industry to pay $506 billion over 25 years, add $1.10 to the per-pack price of cigarettes by 2003 and levy billions of dollars in penalties if youth smoking failed to decline significantly. It also would cap annual damages against the industry at $6.5 billion.
Clinton, who would use tobacco money for anti-smoking programs, hiring teachers and child care, was urging even tougher legislation.
Goldstone, whose company owns the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., said McCain's bill would destroy the domestic tobacco business and create a black market for cigarettes. Three other major cigarette makers agreed.