Moments after lawmakers unveiled landmark legislation last spring to impose the most sweeping regulations on cigarettes in history, two of the people most closely involved in the momentous compromise bumped into each other leaving a press conference on the deal.
Though they were just a few steps from each other outside the Senate’s television studio, Matt Myers and Mark Berlind didn’t shake hands, embrace or even say hello. Instead, they moved silently past each other, carefully avoiding eye contact.
Myers and Berlind may be the biggest winners if Congress approves the tobacco bill this week. But they’re about as comfortable as boys and girls at a sixth-grade dance.
It’s easy to see why: Myers is the president of Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, a group dedicated to outlawing smoking. Berlind is the chief legislative counsel for Altria Group, the parent of Philip Morris USA, the nation’s leading cigarette maker.
But the awkward encounter that day belies an uncomfortable alliance between the two men and their organizations that has helped to move the tobacco bill closer than ever before to the president’s desk.
In the next few days, Members of Congress will decide whether they will include the compromise tobacco bill in a corporate tax bill that they hope to approve by Friday.
Thanks to separate but equally calculated decisions by Philip Morris and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, each has broken ranks with their typical allies, formed a secret alliance and met clandestinely to iron out key sticking points on the legislation.
“It’s the most unusual alliance I have seen in a while,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, a 15-term Democrat from California and author of the House version of the tobacco bill.
The talks between Philip Morris and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids took place on Capitol Hill even as the two sides battled over a $200 billion Justice Department lawsuit in a federal courthouse a few blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue.
The face-to-face negotiating sessions and conference calls were so sensitive that Philip Morris and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids refused to tell even their closest allies.
“Guilty as charged, if the charge is did we roll up our sleeves and say, ‘What are we going to accomplish?’ and ‘How do we get there?’” Myers told Roll Call last week.
“We were always hopeful that the original discussions would bear fruit,” added John Scruggs, vice president of government affairs for Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, Philip Morris International and Kraft Foods.
But as the encounter in the Capitol last May shows, the two are uneasy bedfellows.
“We would never get in bed with these guys,” said William Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids and a former aide to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). “Philip Morris is the opponent.”
Added Scruggs, a one-time aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.): “It’s far from an alliance. We have a commonality of interests in seeing the same piece of legislation enacted. They are working very hard in support of the same legislation that we happen to be working in support of.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., takes a selfie with his cut-out head during the Hoops for Youth 16th annual charity basketball game held at George Washington University's Smith Center, September 8, 2014. The members of Congress team beat the lobbyist team 46-40. Buy photo here.