Tobacco Flares Up in the Senate

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WASHINGTON: While tobacco is still a legal drug, it seems to be having a downright hallucenogenic effect on the Senate floor. The legislation that skated through John McCain's committee with a 19-2 vote is suddenly sparking furious debate -- and making Senators say some very strange things.

Take tobacco-country Republican Mitch McConnell (R-Ky), who wants to cap the fees of trial lawyers who take on tobacco at $250 an hour -- "more than a fair wage," he said. "Let's stop the national lawyers enrichment tour before it starts." This from the head of the Republican fundraising committee, who single-handedly torpedoed campaign finance reform on the grounds that caps on soft-money contributions were unconstitutional. Maybe he's sore that the trial lawyers contribute overwhelmingly to Democrats. Maybe he just doesn't like John McCain.

Trent Lott, meanwhile, was in his usual spoiler's role; his proposal to scrap price supports for tobacco farmers and replace them with a buyout program drew snipes from Democrats, who accused Lott of bursting the bipartisan bubble the bill had enjoyed thus far. Responded Lott: "If you don't want us to try to find a way to deal with children smoking and drug abuse by children . . . go right ahead." The upshot: this could take a while.