Sens. Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, two of the Senate’s more ideologically contrasting members, said Sunday they are joining forces on a bill to provide health care for children by raising taxes on cigarettes.
“When it comes to health care for the American people, both of us have put politics aside,” said Hatch, R-Utah, the conservative chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Their bill, to be introduced Tuesday, would add 43 cents in federal taxes to the sale of a package of cigarettes, with two-thirds of the revenue going to provide health insurance for the 10 million American children currently uninsured. The other third would go toward reducing the federal deficit.
“For too many of these children in this country, the emergency room is their family physician. That’s wrong,” said Kennedy, D-Mass.
Kennedy, who joined Hatch on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said their legislation would have the extra benefit of discouraging kids from taking up smoking.
“The increase in the tax is going to be the most meaningful step that can be taken to stop the 14-year-olds in the country from becoming addicted to cigarettes,” he said.
Hatch agreed that a user fee on smoking was appropriate because tobacco “is the single most preventable cause of premature death and illness in America.”
He called the proposal a “moderate to conservative program” that would let states set their own rules for which children would be eligible for insurance.
But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., appearing earlier on NBC, said he opposed a new cigarette tax, and that even without it, “there still would be a problem with another big government program takeover which costs billions of dollars when there are other solutions that will get the job done better.”
Lott indicated he thinks conservatives like Hatch should not support the legislation. Although both Hatch and Kennedy called it “the Hatch-Kennedy bill,” Lott said, “I prefer to call it the Kennedy bill.”
He noted that 3 million uninsured poor children are already eligible for Medicaid payments to cover health costs.
Rep. David McIntosh of Indiana, a leader of the GOP’s young conservatives in the House, also said a cigarette tax increase was “the wrong thing to do.”
On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” he said, “A lot of people who would be paying that tax are working-class Americans, working poor, and some of them may be addicted.”
President Clinton and congressional Democrats have made extending health insurance to children a major goal of this congressional session.
The administration has yet to endorse the Hatch-Kennedy approach, but Kennedy said he was confident Clinton would support it and that backing would be “the major lift to move this over the finish line.”