White House comes out swinging in an aggressive bid to revive crime bill

August 13, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, trying to rebound from a high-profile defeat on the crime bill, embarked on an aggressive strategy yesterday to resurrect the bill without significantly altering it.

"We are going to get you a crime bill!" Mr. Clinton vowed while standing in a phalanx of blue at the National Association of Police Organizations convention in Minneapolis.

But just how to do that was the riddle at dozens of high-level meetings in the White House and on Capitol Hill yesterday.

Half the battle plan was easy: dispatching the president to give two-fisted, campaign-style speeches attacking the National Rifle Association, which fought the bill, and the GOP leadership, which persuaded all but 11 Republican members of the House to oppose it Thursday.

The second half of the equation -- the precise legislative strategy to pursue -- was trickier.

The bill was defeated, 225 to 210, with a diverse coalition arrayed against it, and the White House was dissecting that vote yesterday and trying to choose strategies.

One involved opening up the joint House-Senate conference committee again and tampering with the two most controversial aspects in the bill: its $33 billion price tag over six years and the ban on 17 kinds of assault weapons.

Another was a Democrats-only strategy that entailed making a cosmetic change in the bill -- perhaps some minor scaling back of its death penalty provisions -- in an attempt to woo the nine liberal black Democrats who voted against the White House.

Clearly, the initial impulse of the White House was to try and do it without Republicans.

The Democratic National Committee launched a district-by-district attack on the House Republicans who supported the crime bill in April but opposed it on Thursday.

And while GOP leaders Rep. Newt Gingrich and Sen. Bob Dole sent a fax to Air Force One yesterday offering to meet with the president to fashion "a bipartisan" crime bill, Mr. Clinton headed to Camp David instead.

By yesterday evening, White House officials had settled on a third course: making a few minimal changes in the bill that could attract a tiny handful of Republicans, black Democrats and perhaps a conservative Democrat or two who would switch out of party loyalty.

"People need to be able to justify [a switch in votes]," said one White House official.

If the bill passes this way, what would remain unresolved -- at least until November's midterm elections -- is Mr. Clinton's failure to put together a bipartisan majority for his agenda.

Mr. Clinton had hoped for one at the outset. Seeking to bridge the gap between law enforcement-oriented Republicans and crime prevention-oriented Democrats, he proposed putting enough of each side's pet projects in the bill to make it attractive.

But as the bill moved through Congress, more and more kept getting loaded on until it reached the point that there was something in it for almost everyone to dislike.

Of the 58 Democrats who opposed the bill, nine were black Democrats who found some of the law enforcement provisions of the bill overly harsh. The rest were mostly rural or Southern Democrats opposed to gun control.

But even within these blocs there were different reasons to vote against the bill.

Rep. John Lewis, a longtime civil rights leader from Atlanta, is deeply opposed to the bill's expansion of capital punishment offenses. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, a New Yorker and fellow member of the Congressional Black Caucus, has fundamental reservations about the bill's "three strikes and you're out" provisions.

Nor was the Republican opposition monolithic.

Twenty-seven Republicans who voted against the bill Thursday had previously sided with the White House on a provision banning assault weapons. These are the members Mr. Panetta hopes to either woo or embarrass into supporting the bill, but they had their reasons.

Some, such as Rep. Susan Molinari of New York, were angry that after the bill was initially approved by the House, a provision requiring convicted sex offenders to register with local police departments was watered down.

Others, such as Republican Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, were startled that the price tag had risen from $26 billion to $33 billion since it was voted on the first time.

"There was pork stuffed in there like so much sausage," said Sen. John W. Warner, a Republican from Virginia.

But one member's pork is another's crime prevention:

* One widely criticized example was a $10 million criminal justice research and education center at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas -- in the district of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks.

Asked if he'd agree to removing it, Mr. Brooks said, "You out of your mind? Just because it's in Beaumont doesn't mean it's a bad idea."

* One of the most expensive areas of the bill was the $1.8 billion aimed at reducing crimes against women. Critics maintained that many of the underlying crime statistics used during debate on this portion of the bill were wildly inflated, but liberals defended the money anyway.

"Preventing violence against women is not pork," an indignant Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said.

But if the maze of the actual legislation is complicated and hard to sort out, the stakes involved in this fight are not.

Mr. Clinton, a Democratic president elected with a 43 percent plurality, failed to get a bill he badly wanted this week on a vote that even White House officials concede is an "easier" vote than the one on health reform.

And though Mr. Clinton complains about the NRA and the Republican leadership, Democrats hold 78 more seats in the House than the Republicans right now -- an advantage almost certain to be whittled down by the November midterm elections.

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