Tobacco Bill's Defeat Leaves K-12 Plans Uncertain
Last week's failure of a massive tobacco-settlement bill in the Senate added new urgency to efforts by the Clinton administration and education lobbyists to find money to pay for class-size reductions and other programs with funding contingent on new cigarette taxes.
Prospects for the anti-smoking bill's eventual passage dimmed considerably when the Senate failed to block a filibuster on the measure last week. The 43 Republicans who voted to continue debate on the bill said that recent amendments had made it too costly and too bureaucratic.
The bill will remain stalled indefinitely, "until we find a way we can get together on something that is much smaller, that is targeted and limited, that is not just more government from Washington," said Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.
President Clinton and Senate Democrats said last week that they would try to attach the tobacco bill to any other major bill that comes to the Senate floor. If they fail, they plan to portray Republicans as caving in to the tobacco industry during the upcoming fall congressional elections.
"I certainly hope there will be [political consequences if the bill fails], and there should be," Mr. Clinton said shortly after the Senate sustained its filibuster. "When the American people understand fully what has been going on, they won't like what they see, and they will be worried about these children," who would be targeted for new anti-smoking programs under the bill.
The measure, which was designed to raise $500 billion over the next 25 years, has been the subject of debate in the Senate for the past month. During that process, the Senate added several new wrinkles to the bill, including language that would allow students to transfer out of schools if they were victims of campus violence.
Perhaps most importantly for schools, the bill was once seen as a cash cow to pay for a variety of domestic programs. In his State of the Union Address in January, Mr. Clinton unveiled a seven-year, $12 billion program to reduce K-3 class sizes, with the money coming from the tobacco settlement.
That proposal was removed from the tobacco bill when the White House compromised with Republicans to get the bill to the Senate floor. ("Clinton Plans for Education Hit GOP Snag," June 3, 1998.)
At the time, administration officials said they hoped to get class-size-reduction money from a tobacco bill that might emerge from a House-Senate conference committee, or from a tax bill that could pass before Congress recesses in early October. Another possibility would be drawing the first year of class-size-reduction money from the fiscal 1999 appropriations bill for education that Congress is expected to pass in the fall.
But right now, none of those scenarios looks likely, according to Washington players.
Because the Senate is stalled on its tobacco bill, the House is unlikely to act on its own anti-smoking legislation. In addition, no major tax bills are on the horizon, and caps on domestic spending leave no room for major new programs, such as the $1 billion needed for the down payment on the proposed seven-year program to shrink class sizes.
"The allocations aren't going to allow for growth in normal things, let alone a billion-dollar new initiative," said Edward R. Kealy, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, an umbrella group for numerous organizations that lobbies for federal school aid.
The only lever to force a solution, Mr. Kealy suggested, would be if Congress felt political pressure to show some major accomplishments on the eve of the midterm elections. That could prod the lawmakers into acting on a tobacco bill, a tax bill, or increases in the annual appropriations bills, with new domestic programs tacked onto one or more of them.
Even so, some politicians may prefer to do nothing and simply debate the merits of their ideas on the campaign trail, Mr. Kealy acknowledged.
So far, that appears to be the path that Senate Republican leaders are taking. On June 17, after four weeks of debate on the measure, Mr. Lott called for a "cloture" vote to end discussion. The procedural maneuver needed 60 votes to succeed. It received 57. The 43 opponents were Republicans, including Mr. Lott.
Like Mr. Lott, House GOP leaders are wary of tobacco legislation. The leadership there opposes the bill's proposed $1.10-cent-a-pack cigarette tax.
Money from the tax, as well as payments by tobacco companies, would pay for anti-smoking programs and health research on the federal level. It also would create a $196 billion block grant to states to reimburse them for Medicaid expenses incurred by smokers. Governors could choose to spend a portion of that money on education programs such as the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Professional Development Program.
While Republicans remain reluctant to move forward on the plan, Democrats plan to be persistent.
"The folks today who are killing this tobacco bill on the floor are on the wrong side of history," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., argued last week.
Vol. 17, Issue 41, Pages 27,29