Clinton drops fight against racially biased death sentences

July 15, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has abandoned efforts to get the Senate to accept safeguards against racially biased death sentences in the $30 billion crime bill, risking the ire of the Congressional Black Caucus rather than lose legislation that would be a precious political trophy.

The president's decision, conveyed by an aide Wednesday night to the caucus chairman, Rep. Kweisi Mfume of Baltimore, presumably lifts the threat of a Senate filibuster against the sweeping measure. At least a dozen senators have threatened to filibuster the crime bill if it includes the so-called "racial justice" provision.

Because of its high political appeal, the crime bill is considered virtually certain to pass despite opposition to some of its elements. The bill's "racial justice" provision would have allowed death-row convicts to use statistics to show that racial discrimination played a role in their sentencing. Its opponents claimed that the use of such statistics could lead to endless litigation, effectively rendering the death penalty useless.

Dropping the provision clears the path for House and Senate negotiators to complete the blending of two separate bills into a final one that congressional leaders are determined to send to Mr. Clinton before their August recess.

The House included the provision in its legislation, but the Senate voted overwhelmingly to exclude it. Some Senate Republicans had threatened to kill the entire package if the provision were included.

"The president has said all along he didn't want any one issue to hold up the crime bill," White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers told reporters yesterday. "He wants to see the bill completed."

But coming after a month of no discernible White House action on the issue, Mr. Clinton's decision to take the path of least resistance came as a bitter blow to Mr. Mfume, who accused the president of failing to deal in good faith.

"It does not take four weeks to see you are not going to have a compromise," an angry Mr. Mfume declared at a news conference yesterday.

The Baltimore Democrat said the black caucus made the only attempt at conciliation and was left hanging by the White House until the new chief of staff, Leon E. Panetta, called Wednesday night to say Mr. Clinton believed that the time for negotiating had run out.

"I would have preferred if the president had just said a month ago, 'I can't be with you on this,' and let us do what we have to do," said Mr. Mfume, who still has hopes of striking his own deal with the Senate.

In the past month, while formal negotiations on the crime bill have been in limbo, civil rights groups have been trying to secure commitments from senators to agree to vote against a filibuster, if not necessarily for the racial-justice provision.

With Republicans and most of the nation's prosecutors opposing the provision, finding the 60 Senate votes required to break a filibuster would be a formidable task.

"I don't like to say anything is hopeless," said Sen. Paul Simon, an Illinois Democrat who supports the racial-justice provision. "But I would say it's not encouraging."

Mr. Mfume is not without resources.

While it may be difficult to get any members to vote against the crime bill once it comes up for a final vote, Mr. Mfume said he would organize the 38 Democratic members of the Black Caucus into a bloc that could keep the bill from coming to a vote.

Because many of the 176 House Republicans may support that effort for their own partisan reasons, those 38 Black Caucus votes could prove an important wedge. A total of 218 votes are needed to pass the bill.

Opponents of the narrowly approved ban on assault weapons may also join the effort to block a vote on the crime bill.

In this instance, though, most lawmakers -- Republicans and Democrats -- are likely to find that their own political interests, as well as Mr. Clinton's, are best served if they cooperate to pass the crime bill.

The final version is expected to include $9 billion over six years for 100,000 new police officers, plus $18 billion divided about equally between prevention efforts and prison construction.

Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican who has been active in developing the crime bill, said yesterday that it is too soon to know how his colleagues might allow the bill to come to a vote. But he noted that prospects for final approval have been enhanced by Mr. Clinton's decision.

The potential cost to the president is a long-term alienation of Black Caucus members, who form a critical part of the coalition he needs to pass the health care reform legislation that is the centerpiece of his presidency.

Black Caucus members are already unhappy with Mr. Clinton because of his haphazard handling of the Haiti crisis, and because he often seems to them to put their interests behind the demands of the conservatives in the Senate.

"This reminds me of Lani Guinier all over again," Mr. Mfume said, referring to Mr. Clinton's withdrawal of Ms. Guinier's nomination to a Justice Department civil rights post because of opposition from conservatives.

The president's abandonment of a candidate strongly supported the Black Caucus was an early rupture in the relationship from which the wounds have not healed.

The caucus members believe that Mr. Clinton should have stared the Senate down over the racial-justice provision, daring the senators to head back to their home states with no action on crime.

"We always end up with the tail wagging the dog," Mr. Mfume complained.

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