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Save kids, not tobacco, Clinton urges

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In an effort to save his campaign against teen smoking, President Clinton Wednesday pleaded with Senate leaders to "protect the children and not the tobacco lobby" as they weigh the fate of a bill to regulate tobacco.

While the Senate Republican Caucus was discussing the fate of the legislation - apparently without reaching a conclusion - Clinton said anything other than a compromise would speak volumes about the influence the tobacco industry wields over individual members of Congress."There can be no possible explanation other than the intense pressure and awesome influence fueled by years of huge contributions by big tobacco," Clinton said. "I urge them not to turn this meeting, literally, into a smoke-filled room, to protect the children and not the tobacco lobby."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott had said that, after weeks of debate and amendments, the tobacco bill had lingered long enough. He called GOP colleagues to his office to discuss its fate, but several senators said later that no decisions were announced.

"I think the numbers in our caucus are overwhelmingly opposed to the bill," said Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

He and a half-dozen other Republicans said Lott explored several parliamentary maneuvers that would kill the bill. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., its chief sponsor, said his preference - moving to a final vote - also was discussed.

Senate conservatives had their own suggestions: Kill it. Sen. John Ashcroft, the only member of McCain's Commerce Committee to vote against the measure when the panel approved it, was first on the Senate floor this morning to urge Lott to kill it.

"Today is a defining moment," Ashcroft, R-Mo., said. "It is time to reject this bill."

Lott's options include trying to limit debate - requiring 60 votes - and set a final vote on the bill. He also could abandon it entirely by forcing a procedural challenge to the measure that could be stopped only with 60 votes.

Before meeting with colleagues, Lott spoke by telephone today with White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, who then met with Clinton and other senior aides in the Oval Office prior to Clinton's remarks.

Perhaps Congress' tallest order this election year, the tobacco bill carries mile-high political stakes for Republicans as they fight to protect their majority in the House and Senate.