WASHINGTON — Among the 17 senators who voted against allowing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco are some of the top recipients of campaign contributions from the tobacco industry, which has donated millions of dollars to lawmakers in the past several campaign cycles.
Over the course of his nearly quarter-century Senate career, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who hails from the tobacco-rich state of Kentucky, has received $419,025 from the tobacco industry, more than any other member of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that analyzes the influence of money on politics and policy.
North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who led the opposition to the bill, is the second highest recipient and netted $359,100 from tobacco-related political action committees and individual contributions. His state is the nation's largest tobacco grower and is home to R.J. Reynolds, the nation's second largest tobacco manufacturing company, which contributed $196,850 to Burr's campaigns.
Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, is the third highest recipient with $228,700. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning, who's up for re-election next year and is considered the most vulnerable Senate Republican, ranks eighth with $194,166.
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All oppose giving additional tobacco regulatory powers to the FDA, an agency they argue doesn't have adequate resources for the task. They say cigarette companies' campaign contributions didn't color their positions on the legislation.
The measure passed the Senate Thursday on a vote of 79-17.
"I voted against the FDA tobacco bill because I'm opposed to the overregulation of an industry that's already highly regulated, from farmer to manufacturer," Chambliss said. "The bill saddles the already overburdened FDA with even more oversight duties, and does nothing to reduce the rate of smoking among Americans — cigarettes already on the shelves will remain on the market."
Burr, who's received nearly $196,850 from Reynolds, worked with Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., for a week to stymie the FDA regulation bill. Their amendment, which was defeated 60-36, would have created a new agency to regulate tobacco, with fewer restrictions than the underlying bill.
Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb supported the measure, as did Altria Group, the Richmond, Va., company that owns Philip Morris. Altria contributed $78,418 to Warner.
"We think it's important to stay active in the political process," said William Phelps, an Altria spokesman. "We're proud of our commitment to the political process on behalf of our employees and shareholders."
Critics say the measure gives Altria a competitive advantage in using its deep coffers to meet FDA requirements.
McConnell staffers point out that though Altria contributed $79,650 to his campaigns, the senator's opposition to the measure differed from the company's stance.
"Mandating the FDA to regulate and approve the use of tobacco would be a distortion of the agency's mission and a tremendous misuse of its overstretched priorities," McConnell said. "We should focus FDA resources on protecting the public health, not burdening it with an impossible assignment."
Contributions to federal candidates, committees and parties from the industry have fallen dramatically since the late 1990s, when companies gave almost $10 million each year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2006, the tobacco industry donated $3.5 million, with Altria Group and Reynolds American contributing the most. Donations from the industry overwhelmingly favor Republicans, who lost control of Congress in 2006 after more than a decade of dominance.
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