WASHINGTON -- Resistance from liberals in the House to the sweeping anti-crime bill passed in the Senate last fall has --ed the Clinton administration's hopes for immediate congressional action, according to sources in the White House and Congress.
Rather than seeking an early conference to resolve differences between the two houses on how best to combat crime, the House Democratic leadership -- under pressure from liberals led by the Congressional Black Caucus -- has agreed to the unusual tactic of first conducting hearings on the Senate bill and then passing an alternative House bill, the sources said yesterday.
"If you don't have a comprehensive House bill, the House will be at a disadvantage in the conference with the Senate in producing a final version of the legislation," a senior House aide said.
The House last fall passed a series of crime bills that were narrower and less punitive than the massive Senate bill, which would provide billions of dollars to pay for new prisons, "boot camps" for young offenders and 100,000 additional police officers.
In a sign of the rising division, the Black Caucus has scheduled a daylong seminar today to explore alternatives to the Senate legislation, which passed by a 95-4 vote last November. Last weekend, a conference of black Americans convened by the Rev. Jesse Jackson sharply criticized the $22 billion Senate bill for focusing too heavily on punishment and not enough on social programs aimed at deterring crime.
In the Senate and the White House, supporters of prompt action say they are cautiously optimistic that public opinion will contain the rebellion and compel the House to move quickly.
House members "think they are going to spend a couple of months holding hearings, going through the process, rewriting their own bill, coming up with their own initiatives," said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del.
"What's going to happen, I bet, is there is going to be a conference by the end of February and there will be a bill on the president's desk by the middle of March. They are so far behind the curve [in the House] they don't understand what is going on."
White House aides said Mr. Clinton will make clear his insistence on early action, beginning with his State of the Union Address on Jan. 25. "He is going to say, 'Do it, and do it quickly,' " one White House aide familiar with planning for the address said.
Reflecting White House concerns, the senior House aide said the Democratic leadership intends to keep the House legislation on a tight schedule. While deadlines may slip, the aide said, the aim is to go to conference and have a compromise bill on Mr. Clinton's desk before the Easter recess on March 28.
The uprising in the House has placed Mr. Clinton in a political cross-fire on the highly charged issue. At a time when public concern about crime has spiked, Republican congressional leaders have intensified pressure on Mr. Clinton to endorse the key provisions of the Senate bill.
But black leaders, already annoyed over administration policies on cities, civil rights and welfare reform, are drawing a sharp line in opposition to the Senate measure.
"In some inner cities, the incarceration rate approaches 3,000 [per 100,000 people] at an average cost of $25,000 a year," said Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Va., one of the conveners of today's Black Caucus hearing. "It seems absolutely insane to take initiatives to increase the incarceration rate."