Crime bill caught up in cross-fire of procedural battle over conference committee Little time left to meld House, Senate plans

November 17, 1991|By Peter Osterlund | Peter Osterlund,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- As Congress races to clear town by Thanksgiving, one of the biggest casualties of its timetable may be a get-tough crime bill packed with provisions to toughen gun control laws and widen the array of federal crimes punishable by the death penalty.

"With each passing week, it looks worse and worse," said Representative Jack Brooks, D-Texas, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

The bill is caught in one of those classic congressional cross-fires of mutual recrimination and partisan bickering -- just the sort of dust-up that so often brings the legislative machinery to a grinding halt. Exacerbating the mess is the shortness of time before the holiday recess.

This political snarl is proving particularly awkward and annoying to the Democratic leaders whose job it is to serve as

parliamentary traffic cops, directing legislation as it wends through the congressional labyrinth.

First, the awkward part. In his State of the Union address last January, President Bush challenged lawmakers to pass both the crime bill and a multibillion-dollar transportation bill within a hundred days. That was nearly 300 days ago.

"They control the schedule," said Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., of the Democratic leadership. "Ultimately, they are the ones who are responsible."

Late Thursday, House and Senate negotiators finally agreed to spend $151 billion on the highway bill, pledging to work through the weekend, if necessary, to hammer the final details into place.

But the crime bill remains in a state of suspended animation: The Senate has yet to appoint its representatives to a House-Senate conference. Without such a conference, where lawmakers sit down to merge versions of the bill already endorsed by each chamber, there can be no bill for the president to sign.

Now, the annoying part. Mr. Bush has been touring the country, charging Congress -- and, by inference, its Democratic majority -- with ineptitude or worse. As evidence, he has cited the tortuous progress of the 1991 crime bill.

But what galls the Democrats is that objections from GOP lawmakers have prevented the Senate from appointing its crime bill conferees.

"In boxing, there's the foul of holding and hitting," thundered House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., at a breakfast meeting for reporters Friday. "I sense we're about ready to have that kind of a political foul if the administration complains about .. the inability to report a crime bill when their own Republican senators are the ones that are stopping it from going to conference."

Republicans counter that the Democrats have left them no choice. Indeed, they say, the Democrats are trying to force them into the uncomfortable position of opposing anti-crime legislation just weeks before the start of the campaign season.

Each has his own reason for opposing the bill. Venerable conservative Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., has blocked the appointment of conferees because he objects to the mix of five Democrats and three Republicans on the Senate's contemplated negotiating team. Although that has been the ratio in past years, Mr. Thurmond argues that four Democrats and three Republicans would more accurately reflect the 8-6 ratio of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I refuse to enter into a situation which would lead to a removal of the proposals which make this a tough crime bill," Mr. Thurmond said. "Let us not forget what a 5-to-3 conference got us in terms of a tough crime bill last year -- nothing."

Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, echoes Mr. Thurmond's fears that the Senate Democrats seek to "stack the deck" against get-tough Republican anti-crime provisions by appointing conferees opposed to them.

Mr. Craig's special concern is that the Democrats will insist on a Senate provision banning nine types of semiautomatic weapons. Craig fears that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms will interpret the measure in such a way as to deprive "law-abiding hunters" of their right to own guns.

If those Democrats get their way, "a lot of Republicans will have to vote against a bill they would otherwise support," he said. And, as lawmakers head into an election year, the last thing many of them want to do is vote against a crime bill.

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