Crime bill's chances not promising Friends, foes say it's too complex

September 14, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Ensnarled in presidential election politics, a major crime bill died last year as Republicans and Democrats refused to compromise on such difficult issues as capital punishment, death row appeals and gun control.

This year was supposed to be different. With Democrats controlling both the White House and Congress, many hoped the impasse would break.

"It's time we put aside the divisions of party and philosophy," President Clinton pleaded last month in a ceremony announcing his commitment to push for the same crime bill that failed in 1992.

But proponents of the measure in the Senate and the House alike are expressing deep reservations about its prospects, saying the complex issues that sank the bill last year remain a source of friction, even though Republicans and Democrats agree on many essential provisions.

Proposals like restricting the sale of handguns or expanding the number of offenses punishable by death tend to overwhelm the widespread support for the rest of the bill. Its other provisions would, for instance, put tens of thousands more police officers on the streets, offer college scholarships to students willing to be police officers, toughen penalties on terrorism and gang violence, and provide metal detectors to schools.

While some lawmakers advocate stripping the disputed provisions from the bill to improve its chances, others are not certain that can happen.

"It will take a fairly tricky strategy to pass this," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee. He called the chances of passage no better than even.

Prospects in the House, where the number of members with ideologically hardened positions is greater than in the Senate, may be even dimmer as sponsors prepare to introduce the measure in the next few days.

"Gun control gets the liberals on board but repels many conservatives," said Rep. Charles E. Schumer, the Brooklyn Democrat who heads the House Subcommittee on Crime and Criminal Justice. "And the death penalty and habeas corpus have the converse affect."

Most Democratic leaders, for instance, would like the bill to ban sales of assault weapons, a proposal that Republicans and some conservative Democrats say would conflict with the Second Amendment's guarantee of the right to bear arms.

Republicans insist on a provision to limit death row inmates to a single habeas corpus appeal that would have to be filed within six months of conviction, a proposal that most Democrats fear could lead to the execution of innocent people.

Such deep philosophical divisions defy easy compromise, but the minefield also consists of jealous congressional power brokers competing for influence and warring special interest groups like the National Rifle Association that can mobilize potent constituencies.

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Tex., who is a leading conservative on the crime issue, insists that the bill include more mandatory minimum sentences for offenses like selling drugs to minors, no matter how small the amount. Attorney General Janet Reno and many liberal lawmakers oppose that tack, arguing that mandatory sentences are unfair and counterproductive.

Several Southern Democrats in the Senate, particularly J. Bennett Johnston of Louisiana and Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, will also fight gun-control provisions that their liberal counterparts insist on.

In the House, Rep. Don Edwards, D-Calif., who heads the Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights and who is his chamber's conscience on civil liberties issues, can be expected to sway dozens of liberals against the legislation if he believes that it impinges on the rights of defendants or significantly increases the number of executions.

And Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, ardently opposes the strict gun control that liberals insist upon before they will agree to expand the federal offenses punishable by death.

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