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Weary Senate OKs Crime Bill After a GOP Challenge Fails : Congress: 61-38 vote sends $30-billion measure to Clinton and ends week of fractious struggle. Handful of Republicans breaks ranks to give Democrats the victory .

August 26, 1994|KAREN TUMULTY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Capping a six-year congressional effort, a fractious and weary Senate late Thursday night passed sweeping crime legislation on a largely partisan 61-38 vote, sending it to President Clinton's desk to be signed into law.

The narrow victory was something of an anticlimax, however. The issue was actually settled on a procedural vote earlier in the day, when six Repubicans broke ranks to join the majority in advancing legislation that was a top priority for the Clinton Administration and Democratic lawmakers seeking reelection.

In that earlier action, the minority party failed by two votes to muster the 41 votes needed to reopen the $30-billion bill to a series of amendments that likely would have been unacceptable in the House, thus dooming the legislation.

Approval of the measure was a much-needed victory for the President, who had made the crime bill a central element of his domestic agenda. Indeed, had a Democratic chief executive failed to win passage of legislation with such powerful public appeal from a Congress controlled by his own party, it would have thrown significant doubt on the party's ability to govern.

The 61-39 procedural vote came at the close of a difficult week of fraying tempers and partisan friction. In the end, an insufficient number of Republicans were willing to risk killing the bill during an election year when crime ranks at the top of the public's agenda. One Democrat abandoned his party to vote with the losing side.

A jubilant Clinton, having for the second time narrowly averted a devastating defeat on the bill, lauded "senators of both Republican and Democratic ranks who put law and order, safety and security, above politics and party."

The centerpiece of the six-year legislation is $13.5 billion to be spent on state, local and federal law enforcement. Of that amount, $8.8 billion would be matching funds, aimed at the hiring of 100,000 officers to carry out community policing. Republicans maintain that the funds would put only a fraction of that number of officers on the street.

The measure also would ban 19 types of assault-style weapons, a provision strongly advocated by law enforcement officials and championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and would enact a federal "three strikes, you're out" provision, which would require life sentences for those convicted of violent and drug offenses for a third time.

Additionally, the bill authorizes $9.85 billion to be spent on prison construction, with almost $8 billion of that in state prison grants and the remainder going to reimburse states for incarcerating illegal immigrants.

The effort required to pass the bill marked something of a setback for the White House and the Senate's Democratic leadership. The struggle took so much time that weary senators, already two weeks late in beginning their August recess, were unwilling to stay in session to continue their debate on health care. Now, health legislation will not be voted upon by either house until after Labor Day--a delay generally regarded as boding ill for passage of the ambitious bill this year.

Republican opponents scoffed at the suggestion that the crime measure would make the nation more safe or secure and said it included a number of old-fashioned liberal social-spending programs wrapped in the guise of crime-fighting provisions. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) went so far as to call the bill a "gravy-sucking pig."

"This bill is not tough on crime. Most of this money in this bill is going to be used to reelect people (the Democrats) want to reelect," by funneling billions of federal dollars into local communities, Hatch said.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) branded the bill "business as usual--spend a lot of money and tell people you're going to solve their problems." He and others vowed to fight the issue again next year, when the money authorized under the bill must be appropriated. And they said the issue would continue to define a fundamental difference between the two political parties.

Republicans had sought to make 10 amendments to the measure, most of which would either strip it of spending or add tougher penalties for certain crimes tried in federal court.

However, such changes would have forced yet another vote in the House, and Democratic leaders warned that the fragile coalition that passed the bill there last Sunday would collapse if it were altered.

Moreover, the Democrats insisted that the Republican effort was really an indirect campaign to eliminate the measure's ban on assault weapons.

In many ways, the struggle in the Senate was a reprise of last week's battle in the House. There too, victory hinged on a procedural vote--one that the Democrats lost the first time they tried it two weeks ago--and on winning the support of a handful of moderate Republicans.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) compared the four-day drama in the Senate to "a poker game" and, indeed, it was difficult to tell which side was bluffing and which actually had the cards.

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