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DeWine Renews Push for Major Tobacco Deal

Talks May Run Afoul of Health Chairman Gregg, Who Earlier Declared That Negotiations Were Dead

Going over the head of a powerful Senate chairman, Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) re-established talks between tobacco giant Philip Morris and health care groups in an effort to get a measure allowing Food and Drug Administration regulation of cigarettes through Congress this year.

Though DeWine said the negotiators under his stewardship have made “significant progress,” the secretive discussions over the past two weeks appear to have run afoul of Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.).

Gregg tried unsuccessfully this year to broker the same kind of deal and has officially declared the issue dead for the remainder of 2003.

In an interview on Tuesday, Gregg acknowledged that he had heard of DeWine’s efforts but had not seen the language and was inclined to take a pass on any deal brokered by his Republican colleague.

“The opportunity was there earlier this year, but I think it’s passed,” Gregg said. “I don’t intend to go back to it this session.”

Given Gregg’s inability to win bipartisan support for his measure, which he offered at the end of September as his “best and final offer,” the relative success DeWine has had so far at the bargaining table appears to be setting up a clash between the two men over who gets credit for brokering any deal that emerges.

One knowledgeable GOP Senator implied DeWine should be careful about how he goes about sealing this deal, if one eventually emerges, because the secretive talks smacked of disrespect and could embarrass Gregg.

“Senator Gregg has declared it dead for the year, so it’s dead for the year,” said the GOP Senator. “The chairman decides what the agenda is, and if the chairman says, ‘That’s it,’ then that’s it” for the measure.

Even DeWine was careful to stress that he did not want to step on Gregg’s toes.

“I don’t want credit for this. I just want to get it done,” he said.

With Gregg refusing to have the HELP committee take the measure back up, DeWine has reportedly been shopping around for other vehicles to which the measure could be attached.

Those options include the fiscal 2004 agriculture spending bill or the expected omnibus spending bill at the end of the session.

But Gregg appeared intent to let the matter rest until next session after he earlier failed to win agreement from Democrats, such as Senate HELP ranking member Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose support is considered crucial to passing the bill.

Gregg’s “final” deal was rejected by Kennedy because he said it fell short of giving the FDA the full authority it needs to properly regulate tobacco.

“It’s a pretty big piece of legislation to bypass committee on,” Gregg warned.

Sen. Bob Bennett (R-Utah), who chairs the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, said he had only heard vague talk about attaching the measure to the agriculture spending bill.

“Until I get a definitive offer, I can’t say anything definitive about it,” he said.

DeWine cautioned that no decision on how to move the bill had been made because no deal between the parties has yet been finalized.

Some people familiar with the talks indicated that DeWine was planning on announcing a deal this week, but the Senator flatly denied that speculation.

Democrats, who have generally favored legislation to regulate cigarettes through the FDA, said the new talks coordinated by DeWine took them by surprise because “what we were delivered was described as the last and final offer” from Gregg, said one senior Senate Democratic aide.

The aide acknowledged the delicate situation DeWine was in by brokering the talks, but noted that Democrats were buoyed by the notion that the issue might resurface this year.

“These talks have restarted and have gathered some momentum,” the aide said.

Even if DeWine reaches an agreement, he faces substantial opposition from tobacco state lawmakers, such as Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell has demanded that any FDA regulation of tobacco products be coupled with his $13 billion bill to have the federal government buy out tobacco growers.

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