Will the Bush White House Pull Big Tobacco Back From the Brink?

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After the hearing, American Cancer Society official Dr. Jack Evjy (r) talks with Massachusetts AG Thomas Reilly

Are President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft trying to give Big Tobacco a little lift?

The nation's beleaguered cigarette makers, including R. J. Reynolds, Philip Morris and Brown & Williamson, have been under heavy fire since 1999, when the federal government first filed its sweeping, historic lawsuit charging the tobacco giants with racketeering and false advertising and suing them to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars spent on treating smokers' ailments. But now, thanks to President Bush's new budget, it looks as if that suit could come to a screeching halt.

This looming brick wall isn't exactly news to John Ashcroft: Six weeks ago, Justice Department officials informed the attorney general that the 2002 budget does not provide adequate funds to continue the government's sprawling, multimillion-dollar suit against the big tobacco companies. Wednesday's Washington Post describes a March 12 memo in which members of the DOJ legal staff ask Ashcroft to lobby the White House for the estimated $57 million in funds to continue the suit's expansive discovery phase. Ashcroft has not yet responded to the memo; a Justice Department spokesperson insists the AG, who vehemently opposed the litigation during his tenure as a U.S. Senator, is "neutral" on pursuing the suit.

Some lawmakers, however, including a few Senate Democrats, seem to think Ashcroft has already made up his mind, and are urging the AG to announce his decision. The languishing suit, which has already cost the government tens of millions of dollars, including more than $11 million last year, has been a flash point for ongoing congressional debate; tobacco state legislators are opposed to pushing tobacco companies any further toward the brink of financial ruin, while others have successfully lobbied to keep the suit alive.

President Bush could theoretically render the debate moot by allocating emergency funds to continue the lawsuit; campaign promises to curtail federal litigation, however, indicate he may be unwilling to take such a step.