WASHINGTON &

Democrats might be on the defensive on their legislative accomplishments, but in less than a year after taking control of Congress, they have had noted success in turning the tide against tobacco use in the Capitol.




In a move sought by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D., N.J., a longtime smoking foe, and four of his Senate colleagues, the Senate Rules Committee sent a letter Nov. — ordering the architect of the Capitol's office to stop selling "chewing tobacco, cigarette packs and cartons, and cigars" in shops on the Senate side of the Capitol as of Jan. 1.




The decision prompted a fire sale on tobacco products, as employees posted a sign announcing that "US Senate Restaurants is Offering a Special Price for All Cigarettes," at $3 a pack and $30 a carton. Cigarettes and tobacco prices have been significantly cheaper in the Capitol complex than elsewhere in Washington since cigarettes sales have long been exempt from federal and District of Columbia taxes &

a perk that mainly benefits lawmakers and congressional employees.




According to a July report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, cigarettes cost an average of $4.58 a pack in the city, $4.42 in Maryland and $3.78 in Virginia. "The Senate was operating as a discount cigarette outlet," Lautenberg said. "It was time to shut it down."




Some tobacco sales could shift to the House side, which won't be affected by the Senate action because one chamber can't impose its rules on the other. Cigarettes are currently sold in the Longworth House Office Building.




In January, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D., Calif., banned smoking in the Speaker's Lobby off of the House floor where lawmakers regularly adjourned for smoke breaks during long debates and floor votes. They now congregate on the members-only balcony off of the Speaker's Lobby.




Last year, under former Speaker Dennis Haster, R., Ill., smoking was prohibited within 25 feet of any House office building entrance, though that rule hasn't been strictly enforced. Members of both chambers are still permitted to smoke in their personal offices.




In the biggest blow to tobacco, however, Democrats are seeking a 61-cent-a-pack increase in cigarette taxes to fund an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. President Bush has vetoed the bill once and has said he will do so again if the tobacco tax remains intact.