Charges fly over tobacco buyout proposals

With about a month to go before election day, the tobacco buyout is in danger of going up in smoke because of political maneuvering, say House Democrats.

Keeping Food and Drug Administration regulation out of the conference committee report on the corporate tax bill H.R. 4520 is an “orchestrated” plan to scuttle the tobacco buyout, they claim.

In a conference call with reporters that at times resembled the diagramming of a football play in the locker room, three House Democrats from North Carolina and one from South Carolina, John Spratt, described “what to look for.”

The Democrats say the Republican leadership is setting up a scenario where the bill heads out of conference without FDA regulation and is defeated in the Senate. Republicans in the Senate, such as North Carolina’s Elizabeth Dole, have said that FDA regulation of tobacco is essential to get a buyout passed.

A draft conference report, floated the same day House conferees were announced, did not contain a buyout.

The House earlier passed a $9.6 billion buyout bill that did not include FDA regulation. The $13 billion Senate version did include FDA regulation. Current excise taxes fund the House version. The Senate version funds the buyout by assessing cigarette companies based on domestic sales. The buyout passed as part of the larger corporate tax bill that involved trade issues.

U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., said a buyout bill without FDA is “unacceptable,” mainly because it is destined to fail.

The only tobacco farmer in Congress, Etheridge says he’s “disgusted that political games are being played with the tobacco buyout.” He says tobacco farmers long ago decided that getting the tobacco buyout passed was their top priority. “Over the last several months, it’s been understood that the ultimate success of a buyout is tied to inclusion of FDA. Tobacco growers don’t want a big fight over FDA,” Etheridge says. Likening the inclusion of FDA regulation in a tobacco buyout bill to a wedding, Etheridge says, “Whether it’s a marriage of convenience or a shot-gun wedding, we need to have it passed.”

U.S. Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., called the ploy of not including FDA regulation in the bill the “worst kind of political gamesmanship” designed to assign blame should the tobacco buyout fail. Meanwhile, North Carolina “remains frozen waiting for a buyout.” Miller, as well as the other Democrats, predicted that the House leadership will “put something in the conference report that doesn’t contain FDA and it will die in the Senate. It’s all about politics.”

Echoing those remarks, U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., says the “problem is rooted in the House Republican leadership. They are putting forth a buyout without FDA in the sure knowledge that it will fail and they will credit the Democrats with that failure.

“The plan sacrifices the buyout and our farmers,” Price says.

U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., called on conference committee members U.S. Rep. Richard Burr and House Majority Leader Tom DeLay to work toward a compromise that would allow a buyout to occur. “North Carolina’s tobacco farmers are on the verge of losing their livelihoods.”

With a month to go before election, Miller says it could play out like this: The conference report moves to the Senate without FDA, is filibustered. A new conference report drops the buyout altogether. “The House would blame the Senate for not passing the buyout. I think it’s all orchestrated. I don’t think that’s an exaggerated way to describe it. It’s an extremely cynical game. I think they will go through the motions.”

Price accused the Republicans of using the issue as “cover for themselves and their candidates.”

Etheridge said he had a two-fold message for the Republican leadership: Do what it takes to make a buyout happen. Failure to enact a buyout into law before we go home is your failure.”

Ehteridge, like the others, believes farmers will hold elected officials accountable for failure to pass a buyout.

Butterfield, D-N.C., says he spotted a bumper sticker in his district that read, “No Buyout, No Bush.”

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