The U.S. House could vote on a tobacco buyout as early as today, followed by the U.S. Senate. Supporters believe they have the votes to pass it in both houses of Congress.

The tobacco buyout, without FDA regulation, Wednesday won approval from the House-Senate conference committee as part of a major rewrite of corporate tax law designed to end a trade dispute with Europe.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., called it, “historic progress for the buyout,” recalling that her predecessor, former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, had once said it was the “hardest thing he had tackled in his time in the U.S. Senate.”

Passage of the $10.1 billion bill would be an “oasis in the desert for tobacco farmers who are facing a 30-percent cut in quota,” said U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., a part-time tobacco farmer and a member of the House Agriculture Committee. He said he would “wholeheartedly” support the legislation.

“We have not made it home yet, but we are rounding third base,” Etheridge said. Congress is set to adjourn Friday.

Dole summed up the feelings of most in tobacco country when she said, “our farmers need this buyout this year.”

The bill would provide $7 for quota holders and $3 for growers based on 2002. Tobacco companies would fund the buyout. Phase II payments would be eliminated.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the conference committee defeated amendments that would have added the Senate buyout plan, which included $790 million extra for North Carolina farmers and FDA.

The bill does not contain Food and Drug Administration regulation of tobacco products, a point some in the House earlier feared would scuttle the possibility of its passage. Some members of the Senate had insisted on FDA being included in the bill.

U.S. Rep. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who was a member of the conference committee, said, “We wouldn’t have structured it this way if we didn’t have the votes. I think it was apparent to everybody in Washington that this was a done deal.

“Farmers were willing to accept FDA, if that’s what it took,” Burr says. “It didn’t take FDA. We were able to keep politics out of it.” Burr said the Centers for Disease Control, as well as other agencies, would be more appropriate place to regulate tobacco than FDA.

Burr said the conference committee produced the bill with an understanding of the limiting factors. For example, public financing of the buyout was an issue in the Senate. Under the plan, tobacco companies finance the buyout. Companies will also lift any obligation for Stabilization stocks from farmers.

“Some amendments were tempting,” Burr says, “but if we had chosen them,” it might not have passed, Burr says. Burr; Mike McIntyre, D-North Carolina; Ron Lewis, R-Ky.; and Bill Jenkins, R-Tenn., were credited for coming up with the idea to use the corporate tax bill as the vehicle for the tobacco buyout.

The political heat surrounding the issue picked up beginning last week, with a Democratic conference call that laid out a scenario where the buyout would move out of conference without FDA and fail on the Senate floor.

Erskine Bowles took an unorthodox approach.

Bowles, who’s running against Burr as a candidate for the U.S. Senate from North Carolina, flew to Washington, D.C., Wednesday to lobby 24 Senate Democrats for passage of the bill. The former White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton Administration said it’s “one of the big plusses of having someone who knows each of these senators on a first-name basis” from having worked with them and having “earned their respect.”

In a conference call with reporters, Bowles said his message to the senators was, “this is an important bill for farmers. They cannot stand another devastating quota cut.

“I was focused on the farmers and how important this bill is to the farmers — with or without FDA,” Bowles said.

Upset that the bill did not contain FDA regulation, some senators threatened to filibuster the bill.

In a separate conference call with Burr and Dole, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said, “a filibuster will not succeed because this is a very large bill with a number of features. An effort to try to defeat this bill would not” put FDA back in the bill.

Bowles criticized Burr for voting against the extra $790 million under the Senate tobacco buyout plan for North Carolina growers.

Responding to the criticism, Burr said, “I would say Bowles wants to try to play a part in the process he has no role in. He’s been on the Hill talking to senators who were the ones trying to kill the process. It’s time we drop politics and go to the floor and receive enough votes to pass this legislation.”

In the process of negotiation before arriving at the $10.1 billion figure, Bill Thomas, R-Calif., the chairman of the conference committee, had floated a proposal that would have cut the tobacco buyout to $7 billion. Etheridge said the cut would have been “unacceptable.”

Pointing out that growers were facing a predicted 30-percent quota cut in 2005, Burr told reporters, “I don’t think anybody’s not going to cash the check. I believe if you had said to farmers ‘$5 and $2 without the trouble,’ the majority of the farmers would have said, ‘Take it.’ We have exceeded the farmers expectations, I believe.”

CLARIFICATION: An online version of an article on this Web site yesterday incorrectly quoted U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge, D-N.C., as being against the tobacco buyout that made it out of the conference committee.

Etheridge was referring to an earlier version that would have lowered the buyout to $7 billion. The North Carolina Democrat “wholeheartedly” supports the $10.1 billion tobacco buyout that the House is expected to take up today.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com