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Senate Leaders Bargain, Battle Over Crime Bill

August 25, 1994|KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — With their partisan stalemate over $30-billion crime legislation in its third day, Senate leaders Wednesday engaged in a round of bargaining and bluffing, leaving both sides unsure which has the votes to win.

Republicans need at least 41 votes to prevail on a procedural maneuver that could throw the bill open to unlimited amendment, which they contend is necessary to strip the legislation of pork-barrel spending and add tougher anti-crime measures.

However, Democrats insisted that amendments would doom the measure because changes would upset the fragile compromise worked out last weekend in the House--which would have to approve the legislation again. Moreover, they said the GOP's real agenda is denying President Clinton a political victory and stripping the bill of its ban on 19 types of assault-style weapons.

Clinton made a public appeal for the legislation Wednesday, saying: "It's time to put away the excuses, the blames and the politics and join forces to pass this crime bill now." Using a satellite hookup from the White House, he made the comments to a meeting of the B'nai B'rith Jewish service organization in Chicago.

Behind the scenes, the President and top Administration officials engaged in a heavy, coordinated round of lobbying aimed at a handful of moderate Republicans whose votes will determine the fate of the legislation.

Several of them have signed a letter indicating that they would support Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) on the procedural motion, if there is no other way to change the bill. But no one is certain how strong their commitment will be when the final vote comes.

For instance, a spokesman for Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kan.) noted that although she signed the letter, "her bottom line is, she wants a crime bill."

Polls show that crime is the nation's top priority and the legislation would be the first major crime bill to come out of Washington in six years. Making it all the more crucial is the fact that this is a congressional election year in which an unusually high number of seats--as well as Democratic control of the Senate--are thought to be in jeopardy.

The centerpiece of the crime legislation is enormously popular: $13.45 billion in new spending for law enforcement on the state, local and federal levels.

Almost $9 billion of that amount would be spent on matching funds aimed at putting 100,000 new police officers on the street. However, Republicans say the number is vastly inflated.

The droning speeches on the Senate floor Wednesday were a sideshow to the real action outside the chamber, where there were a series of closed meetings among Republicans and between Dole and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.).

Making his latest proposal, Dole handed Mitchell a list of 10 amendments on which the Republicans wish to force votes.

Four would strip the six-year bill of roughly $5 billion in spending for programs that Democrats describe as crime-prevention measures and Republicans insist are liberal social causes--funding that Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) described as "a hangover from the Great Society."

Another amendment would tighten the uses to which additional prison funds could be put and make it easier for prison administrators to apply for them. The remaining five would toughen penalties in areas ranging from drug sales to minors to crimes committed with weapons, as well as expedite the deportation of criminals who are also illegal immigrants.

Notably absent was any effort to rid the bill of the assault-weapons ban, which had been among amendments proposed by Dole the previous day.

Nonetheless, Mitchell insisted that the maneuver amounted to an indirect attempt by opponents of the ban to do in the House what they did not have the votes to do in the Senate. The majority leader argued that by amending the bill, the Senate would send it back to the House, giving the stronger opposition there another chance to delete the ban.

Dole, however, dismissed that assertion, saying that House rules would not allow such an amendment, unless it were approved by the Rules Committee, which is controlled by the Democratic leadership.

"Those who charge that this is some back-door attempt to eliminate the gun ban are firing blanks," Dole said.

Mitchell said he would meet with Senate Democrats today to discuss the GOP proposal, but it was clear he did not plan to accept an approach that he said would perpetuate "an endless circle" of bargaining between the House and Senate. He also noted that nothing in the Dole offer would prevent a Republican filibuster of the bill.

"It's very difficult to see what we gain from this process," Mitchell said. "I've not yet been able to grasp how that presents anything advantageous or attractive to us."

By the end of the day, both Dole and Mitchell said they were uncertain whether they had the votes to prevail.

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