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Stands on Welfare and Crime Catch Clinton in Cross-Fire

March 28, 1994|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — For weeks, President Clinton so deftly controlled the public debate over new crime and welfare legislation that Republicans complained that he was stealing their lines. But just before Congress began its Easter recess, new pressures emerged that threatened the carefully balanced compromises the Administration is attempting to broker between traditional liberals and moderates in both parties.

On the crime measure, the Administration's hope of completing House action was sunk by a wave of partisan and ideological wrangling over the rules of debate, which forced the Democratic leadership to delay final action--and foreshadowed a bitter floor fight after Congress returns from its break in April.

On welfare legislation, the Administration and a potentially pivotal block of moderate House Democrats are moving in opposite directions on the critical question of how to finance reform. Even as some within the Administration urged that the financing rely on more taxes and fewer cuts in other social programs, a group of House moderates last week unveiled a plan to fund reform by cutting off all welfare benefits to legal immigrants who are not yet citizens--an approach already endorsed by House Republicans.

Administration officials insist that they remain on track toward passing a crime bill and completing a welfare reform plan that can attract bipartisan support when it is released later this spring. They point to widening consensus around ideas central to Clinton's agenda--from hiring an additional 100,000 police officers to requiring more welfare recipients to work after two years on the rolls.

But, as liberals, moderates and conservatives all pull in different directions and the Whitewater controversy sharpens partisan animosities, the Administration faces a legislative and political equation beginning to resemble a physicist's chalkboard in its complexity. These complications testify to the difficulty of governing from the center--even on issues such as crime and welfare, where Clinton appears genuinely committed to that course.

"You cannot govern in the center on crime," said an aide to one House moderate caught in the cross-fire between left and right. "It's impossible."

That's certainly how it appeared last week, as the House leadership was forced to pull the crime bill from the schedule after the Rules Committee was unable to broker an agreement to govern floor debate. The arcane battle over rules masked a larger and more damaging political dynamic: the fear among House liberals that moderate Democrats and Republicans might join on the floor to push the bill substantially toward the right.

The bill follows the general outline of Senate legislation approved last November. But it also shifts funds from prison construction to prevention programs in crime-ridden neighborhoods and reverses several Senate measures to toughen sentencing, most notably by narrowing application of the so-called "three strikes and you're out" rule that imposes life imprisonment without parole on three-time violent felons.

When the rules fight broke out, Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) complained that "you've got a liberal group of Democrats who control this process, who don't agree with the movement of putting deterrence back into the criminal-justice system."

Administration officials and House Democratic leaders counter that Republicans repeatedly increased their demands during the negotiations, feeding suspicion that the GOP's real intent was to deny Clinton a legislative victory that could shift focus away from the Whitewater controversy.

But according to several sources, some moderate Democrats echoed Republican complaints that the committee appeared ready to block all amendments to reduce the nearly $7 billion allocated in the bill for crime prevention.

That money has been critical to attracting liberal support, but many Democratic moderates want to shift money back toward prison construction--which is funded at only half the level called for in the Senate bill.

Another intraparty squabble broke out over the Congressional Black Caucus' top priority in the legislation: a provision that would allow prisoners on Death Row to challenge their convictions by using statistics showing that states apply the death penalty more heavily on minorities.

The provision has virtually no chance of being approved by the Senate and included in the final crime bill. But for the House Democratic leadership, the issue is less the bill's final form than avoiding a painful split, largely along racial lines, in the party caucus.

On welfare, as on crime, the Administration finds its efforts to reach accommodation with the Democratic left threatened by a potential coalition of Republicans and center-right Democrats.

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