Objections over the bill have risen to such a level that Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland have stepped in to whip up support among the caucus, according to multiple Democrats. Pelosi gave an impassioned speech both privately to her caucus on Thursday and publicly at her news conference.
“Big Tobacco is just on its usual rampage — it uses flavors like gummy bear, bubble gum and cotton [candy] to ensnare and addict our children to tobacco,” Pelosi said Thursday as she held up a statement of support from several associations representing black medical professionals. “We’re hoping to have a good vote tomorrow on that.”
Democratic leaders believe the bill will ultimately pass. But the legislation has led to tense discussions within the caucus, including a closed-door meeting on Wednesday when Reps. G. K. Butterfield of North Carolina, a former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, and Abigail Spanberger, who represents a rural Central Virginia district — stood up to voice their opposition.
“There is a critical number who are opposed to it,” Butterfield said. “But whether that rises to the level of being able to bring the bill down, I don’t know.”
And some senior Democrats worry that having Clyburn — the No. 3 leader and highest-ranking African American in Congress whose job is to rally other members to support legislation — opposed will encourage more defectors.
“The congressman has expressed concern with certain aspects of the bill, and it is untrue that he’s against it,” Clyburn spokesman Ryan Daniels said in a statement to POLITICO.
Much of the outcry this week came after the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups circulated a letter raising alarms that the bill’s provisions banning menthol and flavored tobacco for hookahs will fuel overpolicing of black communities.
More than a half-dozen Democrats had privately expressed concerns after the ACLU stance, including Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, two sources with knowledge of the discussions said. Omar’s office said she hasn’t taken a position yet.
Some lawmakers have also pointed out that the bill protects premium cigars — largely made in the home state of its co-sponsor, Donna Shalala of Florida — but does not carve out menthol products used by 90 percent of black smokers.
“Wealthier populations have been almost given a pass with this legislation. When you’re allowed to carve out premium cigars — and then the cheap cigars that communities of color tend to enjoy are banned — it just sort of struck me as being unfair,” said Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.).
The criticism has been fierce from some members of the CBC, including Butterfield, Clarke and Rep. Don McEachin of Virginia. All voted against the bill in committee.
But it is not a universal stance within the CBC. Thirty-one members of that caucus are co-sponsors on the bill. Rep. Karen Bass of California, who spoke up in favor of the bill in closed-door meetings this week, said she backed the menthol ban.
“The tobacco industry targets the African American population with menthol,” Bass said last month, adding that the tobacco industry has fueled the overpolicing argument because “they know that we are sensitive to anything that has to do with over-policing or incarceration.”
Other Democrats, including those in more rural districts, have argued against banning menthol. Butterfield, whose home state houses tobacco giant Reynolds American, has argued for tactics like raising the purchasing age or phasing out tobacco entirely over time, rather than targeting products black smokers primarily use.
High-profile activists such as Al Sharpton have fought menthol bans in cities like San Francisco and New York over concerns about how they would play out for black smokers. The mothers of Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner have argued that bans would fuel a black market and lead to potentially deadly encounters with police.
Clarke, whose district includes Brooklyn, said her family has experience stop and frisk firsthand and this legislation would kick those problems into overdrive.
“In my mind’s eye, I can still see Eric Garner saying ‘I can’t breathe.’ He was selling loose cigarettes,” she said.
Garner suffocated and died in 2014 after police put him in a headlock because he was selling cigarettes on the street, while Martin was shot and killed by a civilian in the gated community where his father lived.
“This isn’t a public health bill, it’s a criminalization bill,” Kanya Bennett, ACLU’S senior legislative counsel, said, likening it to legislation that criminalizes marijuana and fentanyl. “We understand that this is controversial, we understand that there is a real legitimate desire to rein in smoking … but this is impacting black people and people of color more than youth.”