WASHINGTON - The House reversed itself Tuesday and agreed to free $4 million in a $101 billion spending bill to help fund the federal government's massive lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
President Clinton welcomed what he said was ''the House decision to reconsider its support of tobacco companies'' and urged Congress to block other legislative attempts to stymie the federal tobacco litigation.
The agreement came a day after a major confrontation between the administration and the Republican-led House during which the president said failure to fund the lawsuit was ''capitulating to the tobacco industry'' and GOP lawmakers said the Justice Department was depriving veterans of needed health care funds.
The House on Monday, after hours of debate, voted 207-197 to retain language in a spending bill that would block the Department of Veterans Affairs from contributing $4 million toward the cost of prosecuting the lawsuit.
But on Tuesday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the leader in trying to lift the funding ban, came back with an alternative under which the $4 million would come from the VA's general operating expenses rather than from its medical care account.
Rep. James Walsh, R-N.Y., chairman of the Appropriations Committee subcommittee in charge of the bill covering the VA, Housing and Urban Development Department and other agencies, accepted the change, saying the point was to make clear that money should not come out of veterans' health programs. It was approved by voice vote.
White House budget director Jack Lew said the change in the House position was ''a very significant victory'' which he attributed to ''a very aggressive stance taken in Congress and by the administration coupled with the fact that efforts to block the lawsuit can't stand scrutiny.''
The Justice Department says it will cost $26.2 million next year to advance the lawsuit against the tobacco industry, with the department paying $14.2 million and the other $12 million divided evenly among the VA, Defense and Health and Human Services departments.
The Justice Department filed its lawsuit in September, with Attorney General Janet Reno saying federal health plans pay more than $20 billion annually treating smoking-related illnesses, which kill 400,000 Americans a year. In a similar lawsuit, tobacco companies have reached a $246 billion settlement with the states.