A decade and a half after he helped shepherd the federal tobacco buyout through Congress, Sen. Mitch McConnell is promoting a different kind of tobacco legislation. Kentucky’s senior senator, who has been a champion of the tobacco industry and farmers during his 34 years in Washington, wants to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarette products from 18 to 21 years of age. The goal, according to McConnell, is to prevent hundreds of thousands of people from dying of smoking-related cancers.
“We all know it’s, of course, an extremely hazardous thing to use,” he says.
The tobacco proposal is just one item on the Senate majority leader’s busy agenda for this session of Congress. He talked about judicial confirmations, impeachment, election security, foreign affairs, and other issues on KET’s Congressional Update.
Limiting Youth Access to Tobacco
In late May, McConnell joined Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia to introduce their bill to set the nationwide minimum age to purchase tobacco and vaping products at 21. On the Senate floor, McConnell told lawmakers, “Our state once grew tobacco like none other, and now we’re being hit by the health consequences of tobacco use like none other.”
When McConnell was first elected to the Senate in 1984, tobacco was the cash crop in the commonwealth with farmers growing the plant in 119 of Kentucky’s 120 counties. As of 2017, only 2,600 farms in the commonwealth raised tobacco, down from 46,000 farms 20 years before that, according to McConnell.
Meanwhile the health impacts of tobacco use have long plagued the state. Now Kentucky leads the nation in the percentage of cancer cases tied to smoking.
McConnell played a key role in facilitating the tobacco program buyout in 2004. Then last year, he sponsored legislation to allow farmers to grow hemp, a crop that once rivaled tobacco but had been outlawed for decades because of its relation to marijuana.
“The final step, it seems to me, in moving away from the tobacco culture was to try to deal with the epidemic of not only teen smoking but teen vaping,” says McConnell. “So I think we’ve come full sweep in Kentucky… and I feel like it’s not inaccurate to say that I played a major role in moving us through this whole process to what I hope is a healthier Kentucky in the future.”
Critics have questioned McConnell’s motives with the youth prohibition bill, given the senator’s close ties to the tobacco industry over the years. But McConnell says more than 50 public health groups as well as tobacco interests support the legislation.
“I don’t know anybody in the tobacco business, whether they grow tobacco or manufacture it, who think that kids ought to use it,” the majority leader says. “Just the fact that the tobacco industry by and large supports it doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.”
McConnell says he’s optimistic his Tobacco-Free Youth Act will pass during this session of the Congress, but he adds that the original measure has been attached to a larger health care bill. He says that legislation will likely pass the Senate, but he’s uncertain how it will fair in the Democratically controlled House of Representatives.
Avoiding War with Iran
McConnell praises President Donald Trump for his handling of the recent tensions with Iran, following attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and the downing of an American surveillance drone in June.
The senator says Iran has a long history of bad behavior dating back to the 1979 hostage crisis. He says American presidents of both parties have responded when Iran has acted out, but in this case he doesn’t think armed conflict is imminent.
“There’s nobody that I know who’s clamoring to get into a war with Iran – not the president, not the Congress, nobody,” says the senator.
Instead of a military retaliation, the president opted to levy tougher economic sanctions against Iran, a move that McConnell says he supports.
“I think the president is doing exactly the right thing to turn the screws on them economically, and that’s why they’re acting out,” says the senator. “That’s not a reason to quit doing that, it’s a reason to do a little more of it.”
McConnell opposed a recent amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would’ve required the president to get Congressional approval to use military force against Iran. He says the amendment would have hamstrung presidents of either party from taking quick action when necessary. (Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky was one of four Republicans to vote for the amendment, which was defeated in late June).
Investigating the President
The senator also stands by Trump amid calls for impeachment by some Democrats. Following the release of the report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller this spring, McConnell said the case against the president was closed. He also says he expects no new revelations from Mueller when he testifies before two House committees on July 17.
McConnell dismisses ongoing congressional investigations of Trump as “presidential harassment,” which he says Americans oppose. He contends that seeking to impeach a president because you dislike their behavior or policies amounts to overreach.
“Impeachment is a blunt instrument,” says McConnell. “It cancels a previous election and that’s why the people are against it.”
Although he thinks Republicans would benefit politically from impeachment, McConnell says he doubts House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will pursue formal proceedings. He says Pelosi knows impeachment could turn off voters and hurt Democrats’ chances in the 2020 elections.
As for Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the majority leader says those issues occurred under the watch of the administration of former President Barack Obama. Without giving specific details, McConnell argues that the Trump administration responded to the interference in such a way as to prevent any further meddling by the Russians.
“They clearly know the price they now have to pay if they mess with our elections,” says McConnell. “So I don’t think America ought to worry about the security of the 2020 election.”
McConnell maintains his opposition to any further election security legislation beyond the $300 million in funding already allotted to help state governments strengthen their voting systems. He says House Democrats are pushing measures that would amount to a federal government takeover of elections.
Other Policy Issues
One place where McConnell breaks with the president is over tariffs.
“I do not support the tariff wars,” the majority leader says. “I think it’s a mistake.”
The senator says Trump’s existing tariff policies have hurt Kentucky’s automakers and bourbon distillers. But he concedes that the president’s threat to levy a 5 percent tariff on Mexican goods does appear to have gotten that government to step up immigration enforcement efforts.
McConnell touts his work with the Trump administration to reshape the federal courts. He says ensuring the confirmations of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court as well as filling federal appeals court vacancies at a record pace are the most important thing he’s done as majority leader. He also downplays the opposition of those concerned about the number of conservative judges reaching the bench.
“The kind of people we’ve been confirming are young men and women who believe in the quaint notion that maybe the job of a judge is to follow the law,” McConnell says. “That shouldn’t be frightening to anybody.”
The majority leader also made headlines last month when he said he opposed the idea of reparations for slavery. McConnell says he shares the views of Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is the GOP’s only African American senator. He says the nation has wrestled with the “original sin of slavery” since its founding, and that generations of Americans have worked to improve the country. The issue, he says, also raises practical challenges.
“I don’t know who you would pay,” says McConnell. “Who would deserve to be compensated for things that were done before any of us were born?”
The 2020 Election
Almost a year ago McConnell announced his plans to seek a seventh term in Washington. He says of the four current Congressional leaders he is the only one not from New York or California. That enables Kentucky to “punch above its weight class,” according to McConnell, and reap the benefits of legislation like the tobacco buyout and hemp legalization. The Senate majority leader hopes voters will remember that when they go to the polls in November 2020.
“I’m going to make the argument that having a Kentuckian in this role is a unique opportunity for us, and we ought to take full advantage of it,” says McConnell.