US Democratic senators on Wednesday sought to bolster legislation that would give the federal government authority to regulate the tobacco industry, which has fought off such efforts for decades.
The bill would grant the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) power to regulate tobacco marketing and advertising as well as oversee the amount of nicotine in tobacco products, associated with cancer and other diseases that kill some 400,000 Americans every year.
"I think this bill is going to pass the Senate. And it will be amazing, historic," Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, told reporters.
Senate Democrats hope to pass the legislation, sponsored by long-time healthcare advocate Senator Edward Kennedy, as early as Friday.
Although the party is one seat short of the 60-vote majority necessary to block legislative delaying tactics by Republicans, the measure is likely to face stiff opposition from lawmakers whose states benefit from the tobacco industry.
"We need to have 60 votes. And candidly, we are right on the cusp of that. This is a delicate, fragile balance," said Senator Christopher Dodd, a former smoker who has pushed the bill through the legislative process.
"We need to have some bipartisan support on this bill and if we're not careful here, we could fracture this and find ourselves short of that magic, 60 votes that we need to get the job done."
The House of Representatives passed a similar bill in April. President Barack Obama would be set to sign it into law if the legislation passes the Senate and both chambers can reconcile their versions.
The move would mark a major development for tobacco regulation legislation, which has previously fallen short of final action in Congress in the face of a powerful lobby and what Durbin stressed was a "multi-billion-dollar industry."
"Joe Camel may be dead, but this bill will ensure his entire species is extinct," Senator Frank Lautenberg, who partnered with Durbin 20 years ago to ban smoking on airplanes, said in reference to the mascot of tobacco giant Camel.
"We need to end the recruitment of kids as the next generation of smokers," he added. "It is time to give the FDA authority to regulate tobacco and shut down the deceptive marketing and advertising that Big Tobacco has used to addict our kids."
Republican Senator Richard Burr of the tobacco-producing state of North Carolina has led the charge against the bill, saying it was flawed and would have little impact on reducing smoking.
Republicans have also said the measure would place undue burden on the FDA and Burr has proposed creating a new agency tasked solely with regulating the golden leaf.
"This legislation is the wrong way to regulate tobacco," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor.
"Forcing 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.
"We should be focused on giving the FDA the resources it needs to protect the public health, not burdening it with an impossible assignment," he said.
Dodd countered that it "doesn't make any sense at all" to create a new regulatory agency for tobacco.
"We won't jeopardize the role of the FDA in other areas as a result" of the legislation, he said. "This is the right place, the right organization, the right people to do this job."