House begins debate on $15 billion crime bill passage expected

April 14, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of the Sun

WASHINGTON -- Eager to respond to voters' most urgent concern, the House launched its assault yesterday on the national crime problem.

But as two weeks of debate on a sweeping $15 billion anti-crime package opened, the lawmakers aimed most of their fire at one another. Liberals and conservatives believe, for different reasons, that the bill tilts too far in the wrong direction and are trying to shift the balance.

"The name of the game is putting the garbage in with the filet de boeuf," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee, describing the bill's broad mix of stricter sentencing provisions and expanded defendants' rights.

Much of yesterday's session was taken up by complaints from Republicans, who are miffed that the Democratic majority has refused to allow them a separate vote on each provision they oppose.

The House crime bill, similar to legislation adopted by the Senate last fall, includes money for 50,000 police officers, mandatory life sentences for repeat offenders, expansion of the federal death penalty to include 60 offenses, authority for federal prosecutors to charge suspects as young as 13 as adults, and $7 billion for youth-oriented crime prevention programs such as midnight sports.

Rep. Jack Brooks of Texas, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called the House measure "hard-nosed about punishment but seeking to prevent a whole new generation of young people from going down the wrong road."

Despite the partisan squabbling, there is no likelihood that the House will defeat the bill. House Speaker Thomas S. Foley of Washington predicted that the House would pass it overwhelmingly. Once the House bill passes, it will have to be reconciled with the $22 billion Senate bill, which could take weeks.

President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno are engaged this week in a high-profile campaign for the bill that will include a rally today at the White House of local law enforcement officials from around the nation. On the guest list are Baltimore's police commissioner, Thomas C. Frazier; Annapolis' police chief, Harold Robbins Jr; and David Mitchell, chief of Prince George's County police.

But such appeals for enactment amount to preaching to the converted. At issue is merely which political party gets more credit for having taken action.

"They are all reading the polls," Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, said of lawmakers. Anxiety about crime, he said, has far overtaken health care reform and joblessness as the top voter concern. "And for the first time, voters are identifying crime as an issue to be dealt with at the federal level as well as local."

While they were back in their districts for the two-week Easter recess that just passed, lawmakers heard pleas for action on crime from angry and frightened constituents. "The outcry was tremendous, even more so than last winter," said Rep. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, where voters were outraged by the recent parole of a notorious criminal.

Even so, many legislators worry that Congress is overreacting to a media-driven fear at a time when reports of violent crime have not increased and have even declined in many areas.

"Crime is a real issue, but it's a false issue at the same time because so many politicians are demagoguing on it," said Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a Georgia Democrat.

Rep. Don Edwards, a California Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on constitutional law, said the bill is full of "nutty" provisions, like the "three-strikes-and-you're-out" mandatory life sentences supported by Mr. Clinton. Mr. Edwards and other liberals oppose mandatory life sentences on the grounds that they are not a deterrent and that they are potentially very expensive because criminals would be imprisoned far beyond the typical crime-producing years.

"It's hysteria, foolishness," said Mr. Edwards. But like Mr. Hyde, Mr. Edwards said that he probably would support the bill for what he considers the good things in it, such as new protections for defendants sentenced to death and the prevention programs for young people.

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