Smoke And Politics

The White House is fretting that Big Tobacco has successfully split the Republican Party with its lobbying blitz against antismoking legislation. The result: Passage of a bipartisan measure sponsored by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) is suddenly looking shakier.

Working with conservatives and business lobbyists, the industry is portraying McCain's bill, which seeks $500 billion in damages, as a push by the Left to finance Big Government programs with what amounts to a huge tax increase. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a recent critic of Big Tobacco, has reversed course and now assails the McCain bill as too liberal. To discourage other Republicans from following the Speaker's lead, Clintonites pounced on Newt as a tobacco stooge.

Despite strong opposition from the Right, White House operatives are still betting that a bipartisan bill will pass the Senate by late May. That would put House Republicans on the spot. Gingrich will be forced to compromise with the Senate or risk handing the Democrats a potent campaign issue in this fall's elections. "Newt's brain must have short-circuited," chortles one Administration official, who believes that the Speaker privately still wants a deal with the Senate and the White House.

Republicans gripe that the President is a cigar-chomping hypocrite less interested in curbing teen smoking than he is in playing politics. Still, GOP leaders fear they're being backed into a corner. "It's something we need to be concerned about," concedes House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.).

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