Senate Republicans launch final assault on crime bill

August 23, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans, trying to snatch defeat from the jaws of a White House victory, launched a final -- and formidable -- effort yesterday to scuttle the much-debated $30.2 billion crime bill.

White House vote-counters, knowing that under Senate rules they need 60 of the 100 senators to bring the bill to a vote, said last night that they were close -- but not yet close enough. And so President Clinton, as he has for most of the past 10 days, spent another afternoon trying to sweet-talk moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats into rallying behind him.

"These votes are going to be close," predicted Bruce Reed, a White House domestic policy adviser.

One Republican moderate, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- a former prosecutor -- came out in support of the bill yesterday. Other Republican senators targeted by the White House were William S. Cohen of Maine, William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island.

The bill calls for nearly $9 billion for prison construction, money for tens of thousands of new police officers and a host of hard-line new sentencing procedures. It also bans 19 types of assault weapons and sets aside $7 billion for social programs intended to prevent crime. These range from educational efforts aimed at reducing violence against women to money for drug-treatment programs in prisons.

After the House stunned the administration by rejecting the crime bill in an Aug. 11 procedural vote, the president and his advisers launched an all-out effort to resuscitate the legislation.

Although the primary opposition in the past weeks has come from Republicans, it is Democrats who control Congress and the White House. For that reason, Clinton administration aides have fretted privately that if this bill fails, it will increase doubts about Mr. Clinton's effectiveness.

And outside the White House, the crime bill is being portrayed as a test of whether Washington can take action on something that most Americans think is of profound importance.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Clinton's efforts to revive the bill were rewarded Sunday, when Republican moderates in the House accepted a compromise version of the bill and sided with the White House in support of the bill. Mr. Clinton barely had time to savor that victory, however, when he faced a new insurrection from Republicans in the Senate.

Some, such as Texas' Phil Gramm, said the bill's mandatory sentencing requirements were not harsh enough, particularly against drug pushers. Others, such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, complained of the bill's inflated price -- it cost only $22 billion when the Senate passed the first version of the bill 94 to 4 in November.

But to Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the primary author of the bill, these complaints were "a smoke screen."

The real issue, and the real barrier to passage, he said, was simple: "This is about guns," he said.

Theatrically tearing out pages 208 to 223 of the bill -- the sections with the gun ban -- Mr. Biden, Judiciary Committee chairman, said that without those pages, "I'll bet you I could pass this bill in 12 seconds."

The problem facing Mr. Biden -- and the White House -- is that conservative Republicans in the Senate are voicing an objection to the crime bill compromise under a procedure known as a "budget point of order."

This means they need only 41 votes to block the House-approved compromise. In the past, Mr. Clinton has railed against the Senate's arcane methods for protecting minority opinion, a stance that has not endeared him to Senate traditionalists. The stakes are so high on this issue, however, that yesterday, even Mr. Biden, sounded frustrated.

"Where else in the world do you need 60 percent. . . ." he began before stopping himself and changing the subject.

White House aide Rahm Emanuel, noting that 46 Republican senators voted for the bill in November, said it was "cynical" for Republicans to now rely on the point of order in order to kill the bill.

But Mr. Gramm and Mr. Hatch took to the Senate floor yesterday with a laundry list of what they see as the bill's flaws. "It's still larded with pork," Mr. Hatch said. "Whose kidding whom?"

"Why pass a poor bill when we can dramatically improve the bill?" Mr. Gramm asked.

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