WASHINGTON -- President Bush promised yesterday to veto a sweeping anti-crime bill that would place new restrictions on handgun sales, setting the stage for a campaign-year brawl over law-and-order issues.
The legislation, which Republican and Democratic negotiators hammered together over the weekend, moved toward passage in the House.
House leaders put off a vote on the bill until today to give members more time to study the compromise and to make sure they had enough votes to pass it.
Although the Omnibus Crime Control Act of 1991 is packed with get-tough measures -- broadening the application of the death penalty in federal crimes and providing new funds for law-enforcement efforts -- Republicans contended that the majority Democrats watered down the bill to force the president into the awkward position of opposing crime legislation.
"Let me be clear, I would have to veto this legislation because it would weaken our criminal justice system," Mr. Bush said in a speech in Columbus, Ohio.
Democrats, meanwhile, countered that it was the Republicans who were playing politics with the crime bill and that it was Mr. Bush who hoped to embarrass the Democrats by portraying them as soft on crime.
"It's ludicrous. This is becoming a no-legislation administration," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.
"The president got 95 percent of what he wanted," said Representative Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the House Judiciary Committee and a key Democratic strategist. "One can only assume he meant to veto the bill all along."
The crime bill's tortuous journey through the congressional labyrinth reflects the bitter dynamics at work in many recent dealings between the White House and Capitol Hill. With members of both parties hungrily looking at next year's elections, bipartisan cooperation has sunk into a trough, and legislative politics have become Machiavellian in their deviousness and complexity.
The crime bill fits the pattern. In recent weeks, Senate Republicans had blocked the start of the House-Senate conference to merge the two chambers' differing versions of the bill. But when the conference got under way, it was the Democrats who dominated the negotiations, forging ahead with the bill over Republican protests in a tough weekend session.
The administration has responded by saying that the measure does not go far enough to limit appeals that state prisoners on death row can file in federal courts. It also has complained that Democratic conferees weakened parts of the bill that would have allowed greater use of improperly seized evidence in criminal trials. Instead, police could use such evidence only if they acquire it while acting in good faith.
"I'm told that almost across the board, they weakened it to the point where it has no resemblance to the bill we sent up there," said White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, concluding that the Democrats "basically gutted the bill of all its meaningful provisions."
But Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, derided the veto threat as "a ploy" to block passage of the bill's five-day waiting period for handgun purchases.
The provision, known as the Brady bill, is named for former White House press secretary James S. Brady, who was shot in the head by John W. Hinckley Jr. during an unsuccessful attempt to kill President Ronald Reagan in 1981. The bill was furiously opposed by the National Rifle Association.
"They are going to the election with the right wing on their back and the NRA," Mr. Biden said. "You look for any excuse to be able to veto the Brady bill because you can't look at the [overall] bill and say it's soft on crime."
In an effort to shield the president from the potential political difficulties accompanying a veto of the crime bill, Senate Republicans were planning a filibuster of the legislation when it comes to the Senate, in all likelihood today.
Mr. Biden conceded that Democrats would probably fall short of the 60 votes needed to stop the filibuster. "But do they want to leave themselves in that kind of position?" he asked. "Are they really that desperate?"
Republicans retorted that the Democrats had left them with no choice and that the public would understand.
"Nobody likes to torpedo a so-called crime bill, but I think the only thing worse is to pretend you've done something," said Representative Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill., brandishing a letter signed by 31 attorneys general decrying the bill as "pro-crime."