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House OKs Crime Bill, Keeps Assault Gun Ban : Congress: The revived measure is trimmed to $30 billion. Clinton calls 235-195 vote a 'great victory for all law-abiding Americans.' But a GOP filibuster could await in the Senate.

August 22, 1994|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On a roller-coaster ride to the end, President Clinton's anti-crime bill finally squeezed through a surly and exhausted House on Sunday night after Democrats made major concessions to win enough Republican votes to overcome fierce opposition by the gun lobby.

Stripped of nearly a third of its spending for the social programs opposed by Republicans but with its ban on the sale of assault weapons intact, the $30-billion measure was approved, 235 to 195, after what both sides agreed was one of the fiercest legislative battles in recent memory.

In Oval Office remarks shortly after the vote, President Clinton lauded passage of the bill as "a great victory for all law-abiding Americans."

"This is the way Washington ought to work, and I hope it will work this way in the future," he said.

Clinton praised House Republicans for helping to save the bill, saying that he was "very grateful" for their aid. A major victory for him, the election-year struggle over the crime bill had come to represent a portentous trial of the Democrats' ability to govern.

However, in a warning that at least one more hairpin curve lies ahead on the crime bill's tortuous legislative course, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said that he expects Republican senators to try to filibuster the package when it goes to the upper chamber this week. "They will filibuster, and it's going to be tough, but I think we'll get enough votes to pass it," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said.

The legislation provides for hiring as many as 100,000 police officers over six years, building new prisons, funding crime prevention programs, banning the sale of certain assault weapons, expanding the death penalty and mandating life in prison for three-time violent offenders. For the moment at least, the White House and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill were both exultant and relieved that they had brought the crime bill this far with its assault weapon ban intact, despite tenacious opposition by the National Rifle Assn. and other gun lobbying groups.

"The people who hate guns are in the majority right now," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), admitting that he and about 50 other pro-NRA Democrats had waged an unsuccessful campaign to kill the weapon ban.

They almost succeeded when they joined forces Aug. 11 with Republicans to block the House from considering the original bill on a narrow procedural vote. Stunned by a defeat orchestrated in part by members of its own party, the Clinton Administration began negotiating with moderate Republicans, who agreed to support the bill after winning about $3.3 billion in spending cuts and stiffer penalties for some offenses in a marathon round of weekend talks ending early Sunday.

The GOP moderates delivered 42 votes, more than enough to allow Clinton to prevail, 239 to 189, on the procedural vote the second time around Sunday. But another hurdle loomed when opponents sought to send the bill back to the drafting table with instructions to incorporate alternative provisions that would have dropped the assault weapon ban and cut even more of the spending that many Republicans had derided as "pork."

Suddenly fearful that it would be unable to hold its narrow bipartisan coalition together on that motion, the White House waged an eleventh-hour lobbying blitz. The Democratic leadership warned its members that with their votes rode the fate of far more than just the anti-crime bill, one of Clinton's legislative priorities in this election year.

"We've been telling them that, more than any other vote this year, the crime bill is a test of party loyalty," a senior Democratic strategist said. "We've been telling them that the way they vote could affect the health care debate and even the party's chances of retaining control of the House next year."

The NRA also lobbied furiously, flooding congressional offices on Sunday with leaflets and letters that warned members to beware of "the incredible voter anger brewing outside the (Washington) Beltway" and its consequences for their reelection efforts in November.

In the end, however, the White House strategy worked as Clinton held on to the votes of 31 of the 38 members of the Congressional Black Caucus in spite of their opposition to the anti-crime bill's expanded death penalties and the steep spending cuts in crime prevention programs favored by liberal lawmakers.

In an effort to attract the caucus' votes, the GOP leadership dropped the death penalty provisions from its alternative bill, which was hurriedly drafted late Saturday by Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) and Bill Brewster (D-Okla.).

But even though the Black Caucus favored the anti-crime bill itself, 24 to 11, most of its members stuck by the Administration on the second procedural vote that marked the defeat of the gun lobby and cleared the way for final passage of what Clinton hailed as the "toughest" anti-crime legislation ever to clear the House.

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