WASHINGTON — House Republicans completed most of their rewrite of last year's crime legislation Tuesday, winning approval of a $10-billion block grant to replace police hiring and crime prevention programs that Democrats had enacted into law.
Defying President Clinton's veto threat, the House voted mostly along party lines, 238 to 192, to eliminate the centerpiece of the $30-billion 1994 crime bill: an $8.8-billion grant to help put as many as 100,000 new police officers on the nation's streets by the year 2000.
In voting to convert that program into a general fund from which local governments could finance the anti-crime initiatives of their choice, the GOP leadership thus put itself squarely on a collision course with Clinton, who has said that he will veto the bill to defend his promise to fund more police officers.
"I'm not going to let them wreck our crime bill, which is putting 100,000 new cops on the streets," Clinton declared Tuesday. Later, in an appearance in San Bernardino, he added that crime "ought to be an American issue." He said that he would work with the Senate to "keep this a bipartisan issue."
Democrats noted that they had many more than the 146 votes needed to keep the House from overturning a presidential veto.
But any veto is weeks, if not months away, as GOP leaders in the Senate signaled their intention to move more slowly with their version of crime legislation.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) indicated that he plans to revise the House legislation before it moves to the Senate floor and a Judiciary Committee source added that several House provisions--particularly those limiting prisoners' rights and admitting improperly obtained evidence at trials--may be opposed by some Republican senators.
The Senate leadership has yet to formulate a strategy for moving a crime bill through the Senate and committee hearings have not been scheduled.
"We're going to have to come up with our own Senate bill," Hatch said, noting that the Senate would not do the legislation in six parts as the House did because Senate rules allow filibusters that could draw out debate.
Senate Democrats served notice that passage of crime legislation would not be easy.
"I'm so sick and tired of this pap," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.). "Where is the logic of dismantling this crime bill other than to say it has the name Clinton on it so it must be bad?"
In Orange County, where several cities already have had grants approved for some of those new officers, police officials were expressing a wait-and-see attitude.
"It's still a little premature to tell what's going to happen," said Sgt. Bob Clark, a spokesman for the Santa Ana Police Department, which has received approval for 15 new officers under the Clinton program.
"I don't think there's anybody here who wouldn't like to see more police officers on the streets," Clark said, "but there's still a lot of in-fighting, and it may be some time before we know" the outcome.
Police Chief Steven Staveley of La Habra, which has received partial funding for five new officers, said: "My community has significant needs, and I think we will qualify for the block grants as well."
Other Orange County communities slated to hire new officers under the Clinton program are Seal Beach, Laguna Beach and Cypress.
The most controversial of six anti-crime measures that the Republicans have steamrolled through the House over the past week, the block grant bill would also eliminate a host of crime prevention programs such as after-school sports activities for urban youth that the Administration had fought hard to include in last year's bill.
Under the new legislation, states and municipalities still would be free to use the block grant monies to hire more police officers or to fund prevention programs such as midnight basketball. But they would not be required to do so.
Citing the abuses of the 1970s, when the first experiments with unrestricted block grants for anti-crime programs misfired because of state mismanagement and misuse of the funds, Democrats protested that the GOP bill effectively would kill the major programs in last year's bill and result in few, if any, new officers actually being hired in high-crime areas.
"This is a $10-billion giveaway that is just begging to be abused," said Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "If I've ever seen a piece of legislation that might be a candidate for a veto, this is it."
GOP leaders, however, insisted that their bill contains adequate safeguards against abuse.
"We have more faith and trust in local government . . . than the Democrats have," said Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), the Judiciary panel's chairman. "We don't think that Washington always knows best."