More Smoke from the Senate Floor

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WASHINGTON: More from the Senate's tobacco circus, in which a presidential hopeful helps himself to some free air time. John Ashcroft, the family-values pit bull from the religious right by way of Missouri, ate up three hours of debate time decrying the legislation as a "massive tax increase, a massive expansion of government... an affront to the effort of families to provide for themselves."

Guess what? He's right. And the $1.10-a-pack increase would be shouldered overwhelmingly by those with yearly incomes under $30,000, making it a very regressive tax indeed. The problem for Ashcroft, who was the only senator to vote against the bill in committee, is that given the nature of tobacco politics these days, his three-hour play for the affections of the fiscal conservative crowd may sound a bit specious. This isn't any ordinary tax hike.

"As a constituency, smokers aren't very reliable," says TIME congressional correspondent Jay Carney, "beacuse most of them are trying to quit. And saying that you're sticking up for poor people by letting them kill themselves more cheaply -- that's hard to defend. But anytime you can turn something into a tax-hike issue, you've got a chance of stopping it. Ashcroft will keep hammering away, and this bill is by no means a sure thing." And attacking it is not a bad way to get noticed.