With Election Day closing fast, Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and Democratic congressional leaders exchanged sharp charges Friday over a delay in the signing of a sweeping bipartisan drug bill that he said is needed immediately to mete out stern punishment to drug dealers.
Both parties have cited drugs as the nation’s major crime problem, and the White House was anxious to sign the bill, passed in Congress’ last hours two weeks ago, before voters go to the polls.
Thornburgh, in an interview, said he was “hot and bothered” over the delay, adding: “God forbid we should have a drug-related killing” in which the killer would not face the possibility of execution because the bill has not been signed into law by President Reagan.
In an action that the Justice Department’s legislative chief labeled “unprecedented,” House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) held a signing ceremony of his own Friday at the Ft. Worth City Hall’s council chamber, hailing the legislation as “the most important drug bill in the history of America.”
Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.), president pro tem of the Senate, now must add his signature before the bill goes to Reagan, but an aide said he would not be able to do so before Tuesday.
Wright and his chief of staff, Marshall Lynam, dismissed as “ridiculous” the suggestion that the process is being deliberately held up so that no White House signing can occur until after Tuesday’s vote. Wright accused Thornburgh of seizing on “one of the major nonpartisan achievements of Congress to try to make it an excuse for pointless and wholly unwarranted partisan insinuations. He ought to be ashamed of himself for questioning my motives on a matter in which he is so totally uninformed.”
Thornburgh said lawyers in the Justice Department and in offices of U.S. attorneys around the nation “are really quite concerned over the fact that offenses may go down at any moment that will occasion a lower penalty than is provided in the new drug bill.”
Only hours before word of Wright’s signing ceremony in Texas reached Washington, Thornburgh said: “There is a genuine law enforcement interest in seeing this bill signed as soon as possible, and my understanding is that it is being held up in the Speaker’s office.”
Thornburgh said there were “a couple of sting operations out there that either will go down without the enhanced penalties that are available or will be continued with some risk of exposure.”
In addition, assistant U.S. attorneys in some districts are attempting to postpone certain other arrests until after Reagan signs the bill to take advantage of its increased penalties.
Citing the new law’s tougher provisions, Thornburgh noted that methamphetamines were added to the list of drugs whose sellers are subject to so-called mandatory-minimum penalties. While someone selling a pound of methedrine probably would be put on probation if convicted under present law, he would draw a minimum 10-year sentence under the new law. The increased penalty applies only to crimes committed after the President signs the bill.
Lynam said the draft of the omnibus anti-drug initiative was 365 pages long, requiring 195 of the large parchment pages on which bills must be printed. “It must be absolutely . . . proofread and OKd by the parliamentarian,” he said. “That wasn’t finished until Wednesday afternoon.”
Lynam said that a staff aide immediately delivered the bill and 74 other pieces of legislation to Texas for the Speaker’s signature. “I don’t know what’s got into Thornburgh,” Lynam said.
Wright said he invited “all of the congressional delegation, both Democrats and Republicans, from the Ft. Worth-Dallas Metroplex” to the signing ceremony “in an abundance of zeal to protect the bipartisan character of this legislation.”
Loye Miller, Thornburgh’s spokesman, said Wright “obviously could have signed the bill earlier. The Speaker runs the House machinery.
“It puzzles me in the extreme why this delay is taking place,” Thornburgh said.