Crime bill's chances for passage appear brighter

November 15, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

WASHINGTON -- For the first time in the years since Congress began its biennial anguishing over how to address the mounting scourge of violent crime, the prospects for actually enacting a bill appear bright.

President Clinton reflected the grim urgency felt by the public and by Congress with his weekend speech in Memphis, Tenn., that invoked the horror he said the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would feel at today's destructive violence of crime with guns.

The Senate is poised to respond this week -- possibly as early as tomorrow -- by passing a $23 billion anti-crime bill designed to show that its members are serious about mounting a campaign against violence in the streets.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., the bill's chief sponsor, says he has "never been as optimistic as I am now" about its chances.

Over the past three congresses, similar bills were stalled by repeated political disagreements over such divisive issues as the death penalty, gun control, death-row appeals, rules governing police searches, and a range of lesser disputes over the length and severity of penalties for nonviolent offenders.

But after days of grueling negotiations, Senate leaders last Wednesday agreed to a filibuster-proof agreement to limit debate and rules of engagement for the remaining issues in the bill. The deal virtually guarantees the bill's Senate passage.

It also ensures that a ban on certain military assault-style weapons will be included in the legislation that leaves the Senate.

It also ensures that, in addition to a wide range of sharply punitive measures to crack down on violent criminals, the bill will contain more than $6 billion for crime-prevention programs designed mainly to steer younger people away from the temptation of criminal careers.

"That's an important part of this legislation that has been overlooked in the press and among the public," Mr. Biden said. "There are some truly innovative programs that are aimed at prompt intervention with young people to either divert them from lives of crime or set them on the straight path if they do get into trouble."

For example, the bill contains $1.2 billion to establish "early intervention teams" of police, social workers, teachers and doctors to identify troubled youngsters and work with juvenile offenders. The Justice Department also would finance police athletic leagues, Big Brother and Big Sister programs, and girls' and boys' clubs in high-crime areas.

Another $1.2 billion would be provided, under the guidance of new drug courts, for in-jail and probation drug-treatment services to nonviolent first offenders.

About $100 million would be available for local authorities to intervene with youth gangs and provide alternative activities and opportunities to divert them from crime.

Starting tomorrow, the Senate will debate for several hours a bill proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., to provide federal protection for women going to and from abortion clinics.

After that, senators will debate a proposal by Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to more strictly limit appeals to the federal courts of death-row inmates. That, too, will be dealt with as a separate bill, so as not to further burden a crime bill laden with plenty of other controversial provisions.

Then the Senate will take a conclusive vote on California Democrat Dianne Feinstein's proposal to ban assault-style weapons, followed by debates over more than a dozen other amendments and then vote on final passage, which is expected to come Wednesday.

After that, the Senate bill will assume the title and number of a scaled-down House package, which passed two weeks ago, and representatives of the two houses will meet in conference to reconcile their differing bills.

That conference could take weeks to do its work, extending beyond the probable congressional adjournment before Thanksgiving. Mr. Biden says he does not expect to send a compromise bill to the White House until early next year.

And that bill could be stripped of some of the amendments the Senate attached, including proposals to federalize gun crimes and some of the death penalties added to the 47 initially included in the Senate bill.

Also at risk will be Ms. Feinstein's ban on assault-style weapons, which could run into fierce resistance from House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks, D-Texas, a longtime foe of gun control.

Once the Senate passes its crime bill, senators will turn to another anti-crime measure, the Brady Bill, to establish a five-day waiting period for handgun buyers.

That bill passed the House on Wednesday, and Mr. Clinton has promised to sign it if the Senate concurs.

Having already swallowed Ms. Feinstein's gun-control proposal by the barest of margins, senators may face a number of similarly controversial votes in connection with the Brady Bill. Some anti-gun-control senators already have threatened to load the Brady Bill with other gun amendments in the hope of sinking it.

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