WASHINGTON — An alliance of GOP lawmakers and Democratic gun-control opponents successfully blocked the House from voting on the long-stalled crime bill Thursday, dealing a major blow to the Clinton Administration and throwing the future of the massive $33.2-billion anti-crime initiative into grave doubt.
Republicans cast the narrow 225-210 defeat of a technical rule as an opportunity to redraft the bill to make it even tougher on crime. But Democrats said that the measure is now virtually dead for the year because no substitute is likely to pass the House without the provisions that Republicans oppose--a ban on assault weapons and funding for after-hours school programs to keep violence-prone youngsters off the streets at night.
Shortly after the vote, President Clinton denounced lawmakers on television for having "failed the American people." He blamed Republicans and the gun lobby for defeating the bill on a "procedural trick" and demanded that Congress remain in session throughout a summer recess that is scheduled to begin next week, to vote again on a crime bill.
"I want them to come back tomorrow and the day after that . . . and to keep coming back until we give the American people the essential elements of this crime bill," Clinton said.
But House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who voted for the assault weapons ban when it was passed by the House earlier this year, said the final product that emerged from a House-Senate conference was an "unholy trinity of pork, posturing and partisanship."
With Clinton's health care initiative also in trouble, the effective defeat of the crime bill on a procedural motion meant that the Democrats who control Congress may have to face angry voters in November with few legislative accomplishments.
Losing the crime bill vote "is a very, very serious blow to the President," said political analyst William Schneider. Because the crime bill addressed an issue that voters consistently rate as their top concern going into the November elections, Clinton's defeat is likely to reinforce the growing perception that the President is a "weak and ineffectual leader who cannot deliver on his promises," Schneider added.
The Administration's prospects for reviving the bill rest on hopes that the public, which polls have shown strongly supports the measure, will rise up in anger against the House vote and force enough members of Congress to change their minds to get the bill through. "I think people will have trouble saying they didn't bring home a crime bill because the NRA told them not to," the official said.
In hopes of stirring that anger, Clinton hastily added a crime-related event to his schedule for today. Dropping plans to swear in Steven G. Breyer as a Supreme Court justice, Clinton will fly, instead, to Minneapolis to speak to the National Assn. of Police Organizations, which is meeting there. Vice President Al Gore will handle the Breyer swearing-in. But as they struggled to come to terms with the magnitude of their defeat, despondent Democrats were skeptical that another crime bill could be enacted in a Congress already preoccupied with trying to save the President's foundering health care initiative.
"It's criminal what happened," sobbed Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.) as she emerged from a Democratic leadership meeting with tears streaming down her face.
The grim, stunned looks on the faces of Clinton's allies confirmed that they shared her assessment as a coalition of Republicans and conservative rural Democrats opposed to gun control measures defeated--by a margin that was considerably larger than expected--a technical motion that had to be approved for the crime bill to come up for final passage.
Democrats generally avoided criticism of their fellow party members who voted against the bill. Clinton, when asked about the 58 defecting Democrats, sidestepped the issue, focusing his ire instead on Republicans who had voted previously for the assault weapons ban but voted against the bill Thursday.
With so much at stake, both sides waged one of the fiercest lobbying campaigns in recent memory in the days leading up the vote, with Clinton making a series of last-minute appeals to wavering lawmakers on a telephone line that the White House kept open to the Democratic cloakroom. White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta met personally with lawmakers throughout the day. And as the vote approached, he and other senior Administration officials predicted that the outcome would be extremely close--decided by no more than two or three uncommitted Democratic votes.
But the 15-vote margin by which the procedural motion lost was a double blow to the bill's supporters because it underscored the Democratic leadership's failure to keep its own troops in line on an issue that directly affected the President's prestige and is likely to resonate loudly at the polls in November.