This vote was on an amendment by Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., that would create a new Senate rule that would allow lawmakers to use parliamentary moves to defeat legislation that increases federal excise tax rates enough to “disproportionately affect” taxpayers who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Though not specifically mentioned in Dole’s amendment, this language was intended to thwart attempts to raise the tax on tobacco products. Dole represents North Carolina, which is home to a significant tobacco farming industry, including cigarette giant Phillip Morris, which held more than 50 percent of the cigarette market in the first quarter of 2007.
The amendment was offered to a bill that would reauthorize the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and expand the program’s funding by about $35 billion over the life of the bill. To offset the cost of expansion, the bill would increase the federal tax on cigarettes by 61 cents, to $1 per pack. The SCHIP program – funded primarily through taxes on tobacco products -- helps low income families with children afford health insurance, and currently covers about 6 million kids.
Dole noted that the underlying bill would raise the tax on tobacco products by 156 percent, and noted that the tax on cigarettes disproportionately affects poorer people. She cited the Tax Foundation, which found that of the 20 percent of the adult population in the United States who smoke, half are in families who earn less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
“Furthermore, a massive and highly regressive tax increase on an already unstable product is a terribly irresponsible way to fund the State Children’s Health Insurance Program,” Dole said.
Dole’s amendment would have added to the short list of Senate rules that, in essence, allow lawmakers to strike bills or amendments without a vote. Other such Senate rules include prohibiting amendments that are not related to the bill to which the amendment is offered, or bills or amendments that raise the deficit.
Beyond Dole’s parochial battle, fiscal conservatives bristle at such large raises in SCHIP – including the White House, which has threatened a veto over the bill’s spending levels – believing it is nothing more than an attempt to expand government-run health care. Progressives, on the other hand, see the program as vital to ensuring the health and well-being of low-income children achieved by taxing a social vice with severe health impacts for Americans (cigarette smoking).
Max Baucus D-Mont., said the SCHIP bill is not the appropriate place for attempts to add to the Senate’s procedural rules.
“I understand the Senator does not like the way we are paying for this bill. The more appropriate response would be for the Senator to offer an amendment to strike it or to find some other way to pay for it. I do not think it is wise for this body to enact another procedural hurdle as we consider legislation generally here; that is, another hurdle that would block attempts for us to help people in the States we represent,” Baucus said.
[Later during debate on the same bill, Dole did just that: She attempted to use one of the Senate’s procedural rules to have the bill itself defeated as violating the rule against increasing deficit spending. But the Senate voted to waive that rule for this bill, and as a result her procedural maneuver failed.]
On this vote, the Senate rejected Dole’s amendment, 32-64. All but one Democrat present voted against the amendment (Ben Nelson of Nebraska). Of Republicans present, 31 voted for the amendment, and 16 voted against it. The end result is that the measure went forward without language that would have established a new Senate rule against bills that increase federal excise taxes in a manner that would “disproportionately affect” people earning 200 percent less than the federal poverty level.