Washington Raising the stakes in a prolonged battle with her Republican adversaries, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno warned Thursday that she will have no choice but to drop the government's landmark lawsuit against the tobacco industry if Congress refuses to provide $23 million to finance the litigation.
"Without that money," Reno told reporters, "we will not be able to proceed. And I think it is imperative that we move forward to protect the American people and to give them their day in court."
The Justice Department has been squabbling for the last year with GOP lawmakers who have moved to limit funding for the tobacco litigation. Several bills now working their way through Congress do not include the tobacco funding and would severely restrict the department's ability to get the money elsewhere to prepare for trial.
For Reno, a stoic leader who rarely goes public with her political battles, the alarms she sounded Thursday were an unusual tactic that also carries risk: Some think it may further alienate her Republican critics.
But others praised Reno.
"The attorney general is putting Congress on notice that she needs this money," said William Corr, executive vice president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a leading anti-smoking group.
"If Congress intervenes at this stage (by cutting off funds), it would be a political act of special protection for the tobacco industry," he said. "The more visibility brought to this issue, the less willing members will be to do any special favors for the industry."
At the direction of President Clinton, the Justice Department last year brought a massive lawsuit.
The lawsuit accused cigarette makers of manufacturing an addictive product for the last half-century and fraudulently marketing it to teens and the public.
The lawsuit came on the heels of an historic $246-billion settlement that the states reached with the tobacco industry in 1998 on similar claims.
The Justice Department suffered a setback in the case last week.
A federal judge threw out two parts of the government's lawsuit that sought to collect billions of dollars in reimbursement for medical costs the government has incurred for sick smokers.