House nears a vote on trimmed crime bill

August 21, 1994|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The House of Representatives was on the verge early today of resurrecting the $30 billion crime bill, after round-the-clock bipartisan negotiations and extra prodding from President Clinton.

The effort hit an eleventh-hour snag, however, when Rep. Bill Brewster, an Oklahoma Democrat, angered at President Clinton's attacks on the gun lobby, offered a scaled-back substitute without a ban on assault weapons or any money for crime prevention programs. The substitute threatened to draw away precious votes.

House leaders said the National Rifle Association was telephoning legislators urging them to support the Brewster alternative as a way to kill the gun ban.

"I think everybody worries about what will happen when the NRA turns it on one more time," said Rep. Vic Fazio of California, vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

Even so, Democratic leaders scheduled a House vote for this afternoon in hopes that they would be able to secure enough support by then.

tTC "I think we'll produce the votes," said White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta, as he emerged from the talks early last evening.

But Mr. Panetta's face grew progressively grimmer as the night wore on. Democratic vote-counters feared the tally would be close.

The newly designed legislation would be about $3 billion less expensive than the original version blocked by the House Aug. 11.

It would also contain tougher provisions on the handling of rape cases and convicted sex offenders.

The ban on assault weapons remained, but lawmakers were still wrangling over a change that would put it into effect Jan. 1, 1995, instead of immediately upon enactment of the legislation.

Senate leaders, who were also involved in the talks aimed at saving the measure, have promised to take up the revised crime bill as soon as possible, probably late tomorrow or Tuesday. But trouble also looms in the Senate, where conservative Republicans may attempt to filibuster the measure.

Congressional and White House negotiators, who spent most of Friday night and all yesterday morning meeting in the office of House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, resolved early on the money issues that Republicans cited as their primary reason for voting almost unanimously to block House consideration of the crime bill earlier this month.

With Mr. Clinton's blessing, spending on the bill was trimmed by 10 percent from $33.3 billion to $30 billion.

About two-thirds of the cuts will come from the anti-crime social programs the Republicans objected to.

Details of the cuts in social programs were unclear last night, but were certain to include the $10 million training grant for Lamar University, a school in Beaumont, Texas. Rep. Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, is a Lamar alumnus. Though Mr. Brooks, a Democrat, vigorously defended it, the grant had become a symbol of excess frequently cited by Republicans.

The trimming left untouched, however, one of the bill's principal features: funds for 100,000 new police officers, including about 2,000 for Maryland.

Also to be left intact is $10.7 billion in construction money for prisons and military-style boot camps, of which Maryland would get about $73 million.

Maryland would qualify for an additional $50 million if the state adopts the new 85 percent sentence requirement.

Democrats resisted a GOP attempt yesterday to apply that requirement to all the new prison money because they say it's not nearly enough to finance the prisons that would be needed to hold all inmates for 85 percent of their terms.

The ban on 19 types of assault weapons was a principal attraction for moderate Republicans, such as Rep. Wayne A. Gilchrest of Maryland, whose votes the Democrats are now courting. The ban will be gradually phased in.

Another change in legal policy made at the request of Republicans and agreed to last week by Mr. Clinton would require notification of schools and other authorities if a convicted sex offender moves into a new community.

The talks were stuck on four other legal policy issues, including a Republican demand to allow evidence of prior sexual offenses to be admitted at federal rape trials.

That dispute was resolved when Democrats agreed to include the provision but to require that Congress obtain a ruling from the federal judicial conference on the potential impact of the change.

The ruling could prompt later repeal of the statute.

Another dispute revolved around a provision -- previously backed by Republican lawmakers but now opposed by the GOP -- to retroactively lift mandatory minimum sentences in the case of first-time, non-violent drug offenders in federal prisons.

A compromise on that provision gives federal prosecutors the discretion to advise judges on whether offenders serving long sentences for drug possession should be released. Mandatory minimum sentencing might also be lifted in cases of a "gross miscarriage of justice."

Resurrecting the crime bill has become President Clinton's top priority since 48 Democratic gun ban opponents and 10 Congressional Black Caucus members joined the Republicans to block a vote on the measure. That vote was particularly devastating for the president because it came at a time when his major domestic initiative -- health care reform -- was also faltering badly.

The president decided to open serious negotiations with the Republicans last Thursday, when he was told he would not be able to pick up any more Democrats without yielding on the assault weapons ban.

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