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Clinton Must Still Search for Ways to Break Gridlock : Crime bill points up problems of trying to build bipartisan coalition in the center.

August 22, 1994|Ronald Brownstein

Along with the spectacle of senior legislators pulling a string of all-nighters like so many procrastinating college students, the rise, fall and apparent resurrection of the crime bill over the last 11 days also points to a fork in the road for Bill Clinton as he tries to revive his beleaguered presidency.

For the first four days after the House rejected the crime bill on a procedural vote Aug. 11, President Clinton fired rhetorical missiles at Congress, especially Republicans, whom he painted as tools of the gun lobby. Then last Tuesday, he shifted gears, reached out to moderate Republicans and tenaciously hammered out the deal that carried the bill through the House on Sunday.

Thus, in a little over a week, Clinton displayed both of his options for dealing with a Congress increasingly resistant to his major initiatives. He can style himself as a modern Harry S. Truman--crisscrossing the country to lash the do-nothing Congress. Or, he can sit down with moderate Republicans and make a deal.

That's essentially the choice Clinton faces on health care reform. As the prospects dwindle for the sweeping changes he would prefer, his options come down to accepting the substantially slimmed-down reforms that bipartisan coalitions of moderates are offering in both houses or to rejecting anything that fails to meet his goal of universal coverage and then taking his case to the country. He may face the same choice on virtually all other issues after November, if Republicans make the gains in the midterm elections that now appear likely.

If Clinton chooses to work with Republicans, he may first need to consider what went wrong on the crime bill, which was supposed to demonstrate his ability to build a bipartisan coalition in the center. Instead, it became the textbook example of how excessive partisanship and ideological rigidity in Congress--and miscalculations in the White House--have prevented Clinton from surmounting Washington's culture of perpetual polarization.

Clinton began the crime debate with a good idea: to break the longstanding gridlock between left and right by advancing ideas favored by both.

But, as with previous crime bills, not enough people on the left or the right were willing to meet in the middle--especially once the bill arrived in the House after the Senate passed it overwhelmingly. House liberals stalled the bill for months and sapped its momentum by pushing a provision easing the way for prisoners on Death Row to challenge their sentences as racially biased--an amendment that amounted to a poison pill. Conservatives advanced ideas that they understood to be anathema to liberals.

"This partisan leadership on both sides took an issue where there was a bipartisan consensus and turned it into a polarizing fight," said Al From, president of the Democratic Leadership Council.

As the crime bill laboriously proceeded through the House, Clinton's kernel of insight about funding both prevention and punishment got bloated almost beyond recognition. By the end, the Administration and Democratic congressional leaders were trying to pass the bill the old-fashioned way: by stuffing in projects and programs designed to buy off every dissenting faction.

So what began as an attempt to transcend tired ideological arguments about crime became business as usual in a more profound sense: a bidding war that inflated the bill from $22 billion over five years in the Senate, to $27 billion in the House, to $30 billion (over six years) in the final measure. In the process, Clinton sacrificed the rudder of fiscal restraint necessary to govern from the center.

At a time when all other domestic spending was ground under the boots of spending caps, the crime bill magically had wings. Inevitably, everyone jostled to get on board. In relative terms, Rep. Jack Brooks (D-Tex.), who slipped in $10 million for a university in his district, was a chiseler.

The biggest offenses came from House liberals seeking money for crime "prevention." That's not to accept the crude conservative argument that all attempts to reduce crime through social programs constitutes make-work for social workers. In fact, the bill funds several narrowly targeted programs that have wide support from community leaders in troubled neighborhoods.

The problem was that House liberals, with White House acquiescence, also lathered into the bill a stack of large, vaguely defined grant programs for cities. Thus there would be "ounce-of-prevention" grants at $100 million; youth employment skill grants at $550 million; "model intensive" grants to cities to experiment with coordinated crime-prevention programs at $895 million; and $1.8 billion in Local Partnership Act grants to low-income cities--a thinly disguised revival of revenue sharing.

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