WASHINGTON – Responding to a political outcry this election year, the Bush administration is reversing course and signaling support for a plan to pay farmers to stop growing tobacco.
The administration's position marks a switch from just a month ago, when President Bush said on the campaign trail in Ohio that he didn't think the system under which farmers grow and sell tobacco needed to be changed.
"He got a lot of heat," Kentucky Farm Bureau (search) President Sam Moore said of Bush. "We were very disappointed that he made that statement."
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., quickly reminded voters that he supported a tobacco farmer buyout when it was briefly considered in 1998.
Thursday night, Kerry campaign spokesman Anthony Coley said: "The White House has stood in the way of a tobacco buyout for years and is continuing to do so. Farmers and their families need a president who will fight for them, not someone who likes to play election-year games and fails to do the work needed to make a buyout a reality."
Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said in an interview that administration officials recently "communicated very clearly" a willingness to consider signing a tobacco buyout (search) bill if it satisfies several conditions.
Burr, who is locked in a competitive race for the Senate, said the White House wanted a requirement that the buyout mark the end of the program and wanted the cost limited and offset so the plan does not worsen federal deficits.
The administration, Burr said, does not want the measure to give the Food and Drug Administration (search) the power to regulate the tobacco industry. Competing bills in the House as well as the Senate make the buyout and FDA regulation conditional on each other.
Several other House Republicans, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also said the White House has made it clear it is willing to consider the legislation as long as its conditions are met. They said administration officials are aware of possible plans to bring the issue to a vote in the House and have pointedly refrained from telling lawmakers the administration opposes a buyout.
The White House did not respond to several requests for comment.
Under one version of the proposal under discussion, tobacco farmers would be bought out at a cost to the government of about $10 billion over several years.
The issue is politically sensitive in tobacco-growing states such as the Carolinas, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. In North Carolina, for example, Burr's Democratic opponent, Erskine Bowles, favors a farmer buyout.
Asked about the White House reversal, Bowles said that "people in Washington need to quit playing politics with the buyout" and just pass it.
Bush is favored to carry the states where tobacco is grown in November, but Republican-leaning tobacco growers have warned GOP leaders not to take farmers votes' for granted, said Lamar DeLoach, president of the Tobacco Growers Association (search) of Georgia.
"We've said, 'We expect you the Republicans - because you have the House, you have the Senate, you have the presidency - to take care of this for us,'" DeLoach said.
Under a buyout, growers would be paid to give up government-granted tobacco allotments that establish how much leaf they are allowed to sell each year. Their livelihood has suffered in recent years due to a decrease in smoking and an increase in imports of cheaper tobacco.
Senior Republicans are considering whether to attach the buyout to an unrelated tax measure. That would quiet the political unrest in the South and entice tobacco-state lawmakers of both parties to swing behind the GOP-sponsored tax plan.
Democrats acknowledge the issue could divide their party, with some eager to vote in favor of the measure but lawmakers from urban and suburban areas unhappy it does not allow for government regulation of tobacco.
Rep. John Tanner, D-Tenn., estimated 10 Democrats would probably "have to vote for" the overall tax measure if the tobacco provision were included.
He said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip, advised tobacco-state Democrats in a meeting during the day to examine the whole bill before deciding how to vote.