GOP stalls anti-crime bill in Senate procedural move

August 24, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon LTC | Carl M. Cannon LTC,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans, in a procedural maneuver that left White House officials reeling, bottled up the controversial $30 billion crime bill last night.

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas brought the unwelcome news to the White House in the form of a letter signed by 40 fellow Republicans, saying they wouldn't allow the crime bill to come to the floor for a vote unless they received significant concessions. These included longer sentences for those convicted of drug dealing or using a firearm during a felony and a paring down of programs intended to prevent crime.

The GOP senators are also demanding a final shot at defeating the assault weapons ban included in the bill.

Under Senate rules, approval by 60 of the 100 senators is needed to bring the bill up for a vote because a "budget point of order" was raised because the crime bill provisions are to be financed by a trust fund.

Senate Democrats expressed bitterness over the use of this provision by the Republicans, who hold 44 seats in the Senate.

"Why would people who urged the trust fund concept on us now use this technicality . . . to bring down this [bill]?" asked Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland. "I'm not going to get into the reason, because there isn't any sort of reasonable or decent answer to it."

Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, an Ohio Democrat, told reporters he knew the answer: "It's a two-fer: to help the National Rifle Association and to hurt the president."

At the White House, officials who have shepherded the bill through Congress continued to hold out hope that some sort of compromise could be reached with Senate Republicans. Only two days before, President Clinton and Democratic leaders in the House successfully negotiated a compromise after Republicans in that chamber had squelched the bill on a similar procedural vote.

One compromise floated by Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell of Maine was to promise to consider the proposed Republican amendments as separate legislation early next month. Mr. Dole scoffed at that offer publicly. His rebuff, coupled with the acrimony of the debate in the Senate, seemed to raise the possibility -- unthinkable a month ago -- that no crime bill might be passed this year.

Senate Republicans insisted that this wasn't their aim.

"Why not try to get a better bill?" asked Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.

But Senate Democrats insisted that if the Republicans saw their gambit through, it would mean the death of the bill. Opening it back up would require again going back to the House, which negotiated a supposedly "final" compromise this weekend.

"This is not just a 'point of order,' " warned Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat.

"It's a vote to kill the crime bill."

The bill includes billions of dollars over the next six years for prison construction, tens of thousands of new police officers, educational efforts to reduce crimes against women and various social spending initiatives, including drug treatment programs. It also includes the tough "three strikes and you're out" sentencing provision aimed at incarcerating habitual criminals for life.

Ironically, Mr. Clinton hailed the bill in a Rose Garden ceremony last year as an example of how party politics could be set aside when dealing with the nation's pressing problems. The bill contained the anti-crime solutions most favored by liberals, as well as the crime-fighting strategies most desired by conservatives -- and it initially won strong bipartisan support in each house of Congress.

An appearance in the Rose Garden yesterday, however, offered a stark contrast. Mr. Clinton sounded subdued, even morose, as he discussed the bill.

In a flat near-monotone, the president beseeched senators to "continue the bipartisan spirit that was established in the House." As the day wore on, White House aides sensed that this appeal wasn't enough.

The president, they said, was personally lobbying moderate Republican senators, but apparently he came up with only 55 Democrats and three or four Republicans, leaving him at least one vote short.

Some Democratic senators sounded frustrated, too.

"Simply let the Senate vote on the crime bill," Mr. Mitchell said. "That's our request as clearly and simply as can be stated."

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