Most of the pundits around this town believe Republicans will take it on the chin in the November congressional elec-tions because of the failed tobacco bill.

If that's the price they must pay, then it is nobly done, even if by accident.But even now Republican congressional leaders are scrambling to ward off disaster by coming up with a far more simple scheme that isn't likely to work either.

Few pieces of legislation in the last 35 years have been as fraught with mischief as this silly, hysterical bill, which would have made it in the interest of the federal treasury to have as many cigarettes sold as possible while the government is officially dedicated to a policy of abstinence. While wringing his hands over youthful smokers, President Clinton was already spending the billions to be made from a $1.10-a-pack federal levy.

Must be a two pack-a-day man, huh? Sorry. I quit smoking 14 years ago and never intend to do so again. It's a filthy habit full of danger.

But it is legal. Everyone understand that? It isn't against the law to plant, grow, manufacture, sell or smoke tobacco in this country or most of the world. Ask Vice President Al Gore - he used to grow and sell it.

Yet here is this constitutionally questionable bill that would have stepped all over the First Amendment by telling manufacturers they couldn't advertise their legal products; that would have levied a tax dedicated to politically popular social programs paid for by smokers, a disproportionate number of whom have low incomes; and that, clearly, wouldn't have accomplished its stated goal, to drastically reduce teenage smoking.

Ironically, the only thing it is illegal to do when it comes to tobacco in nearly every jurisdiction in the Western Hemisphere is sell it to teenagers. Sure has cut down on their use, hasn't it?

Claims that this proposal would save a million lives a year and produce enormous savings in health care were just made up out of whole cloth with no scientifically valid research to back them up. Actually, research showed there was little or no decline in teenage smoking in states that had raised their tax on tobacco.

But things grew so emotional in the four weeks the Senate debated this bill that Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota claimed that 1,000 teenagers a day die from smoking. One would hope for the sake of the people of his state that he was just confused in his zeal.

The tobacco industry employs tens of thousands of people, most of whom are mere hourly wage earners. But somehow no one seemed to care about them. The concern was for those who grow the plant and who have been getting government subsidies for years. So, suddenly, the people who grow and sell tobacco are good guys and those who turn it into cigarettes are bad guys. Confusing, isn't it?

The tobacco boys were going along with this preposterous bill until the Senate backed away from putting limits on damages in an increasing number of liability suits filed by people who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions. (One would have to have been deaf, dumb, blind and illiterate not to have known what cigarettes could do to you.). The companies then spent some $40 million in a television blitz against the proposed legislation that now has set off a cry of foul from the anti-smokers that will last from here to November.

The bill also would have produced a huge new bureaucracy to police the tax - a force that would have had to grow steadily in the face of what was sure to be an enormous black market to avoid it. Untaxed contraband cigarettes would be coming in from everywhere. They probably would replace the dollar as tender in some areas.

What then can be done to reduce the horrendous cost of smoking? Pass a constitutional amendment prohibiting the sale and distribution of cigarettes and other related products.

It didn't work for alcohol, but it is worth a try. Cigarettes still would be manufactured here for sale overseas, and there would be the same black market generated by a high tax and it probably would be impossible to police, but it would be a far more honest approach.

Would it stop the increase in teenage smoking? I doubt it. But if all the decades of education and the warning labels and all the other steps fail, there doesn't seem to be much left. And it might induce a lot of law-abiding adults to find some other, less harmful crutch.