WASHINGTON — Walk into U.S. Sen. Richard Burr's office, and you'll notice the framed tobacco leaves on the wall. Sit down for a chat, and he's likely to tuck a pinch of dip under his lip before settling into his favorite chair, spit cup at his side.
Burr, a first-term Republican, isn't as well-known as some of his Senate colleagues. But Burr is raising his profile this week with a gloves-off fight in the Senate chamber to defend one of the most vilified industries in the country: tobacco.
Burr has long pledged to do everything in his power to stop legislation being debated in the Senate this week that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco. He has threatened to filibuster, to offer procedural motions, to gum up the works for as long as he can.
"What we're getting ready to do in the United States Senate is the worst thing we can do," Burr said Tuesday.
Burr hails from Winston-Salem, home to R.J. Reynolds, the nation's second-largest tobacco manufacturing company and maker of Camel. Burr is the Senate's second-highest recipient of campaign contributions from the tobacco industry – after Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
North Carolina is the nation's largest grower of tobacco.
The bill would allow the FDA to restrict the chemical makeup of tobacco products, impose strict limits on advertising, require larger warning labels and prohibit fruit-flavored and candy-like tobacco products.
Burr and fellow Tar Heel, Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan of Greensboro, will offer a substitute bill later this week that they say is a better way to regulate tobacco – in a different agency, without many of the restrictions proposed in the FDA legislation.
Burr spent about an hour on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon making his case to a near-empty chamber and the cameras of C-SPAN.
He set up giant blue charts, paced the Senate carpet and shuffled papers as he read from documents spread on a desk before him.
He said the FDA is already underfunded and overburdened, that the legislation would wrongly limit the choices of adults and that the United States wouldn't need new regulation if states had not misspent anti-smoking money in the past.
He argued that if the bill before the Senate were to pass, it would actually do worse in cutting smoking than doing nothing at all.
He will be back again for much of today, and then into Thursday.
"I plan to visit the floor a lot over the next several days," said Burr, who faces re-election next year.
Although tobacco has an estimated $7 billion economic impact to North Carolina, the golden leaf doesn't hold the political sway it once did. Smoking levels are declining, manufacturers have shut in recent years and Gov. Beverly Perdue last month proudly signed legislation banning smoking in bars and restaurants.
Under the arcane rules of the Senate, there will be 30 hours of discussion on whether to have a debate, then another procedural vote, possibly Thursday. After that could come another 30 hours of formal debate on the bill. The Senate leadership has not decided how many and which amendments to allow.
Although Burr has led the anti-regulation fight, Hagan, who won election in November, has shared his arguments in a quieter way.
Hagan plans to submit up to four amendments that would protect farmers from the FDA, help small tobacco companies develop technology and require testing in U.S. laboratories. In a five-minute speech Tuesday, she said the tobacco bill would "have a devastating impact" on North Carolina's economy.
On Tuesday, Hagan and Burr went up against senators who described deceased parents, who put up posters of cancer patients and who counted the number of children – 10,000, said Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut – who would try their first cigarettes during the course of this week's debate.
Burr doesn't stand alone in his views, but he isn't surrounded by supporters either. A procedural vote on the bill passed by an 84-11 vote Tuesday morning, a strong repudiation of the position taken by Burr and Hagan.
Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat from the tobacco state of Virginia, said he's comfortable with the legislation.
"I think the structure of the tobacco industry is a little different in North Carolina than it is in Virginia right now," Webb said.
Virginia is home to the world's No. 1 tobacco company, Philip Morris, a supporter of the bill.
Some observers say the legislation could allow Philip Morris to maintain its market dominance because the company's deep research pockets could allow it to more easily meet new FDA requirements.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who represents his own agricultural interests, acknowledged the bill could hurt tobacco farmers in North Carolina, but he said there was a larger public health issue at stake.
Still, Grassley didn't blame Burr for bringing other Senate floor business to a halt this week.
"He has to represent his constituents," Grassley said. "If there was something that was anti-ethanol or anti-corn, I'd be doing the same thing."