President Clinton, in a high-risk move that could clear the way for final passage of the crime bill, has decided to seek removal of the controversial “racial justice” provision from the legislation, which is stalled in a House-Senate conference committee.
Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, announced at a news conference that incoming White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta had told him late Wednesday night that the President believed no compromise could be reached on the divisive issue.
Administration sources confirmed Mfume’s account and said the President will seek to pass the bill without the provision, which narrowly passed the House this spring but was decisively rejected in the Senate. The measure would allow defendants to challenge their death sentences with statistics showing that the jurisdiction in which they were sentenced had applied the death penalty more frequently to one race than to another.
Though some proponents vowed to fight on, the President’s decision virtually guarantees that the racial justice measure will be removed from the final conference report. Although that should help the Administration push the bill through the Senate, the decision will complicate the legislation’s prospects in the House--where liberal Democrats who favor the provision might join forces against it with conservative Republicans who oppose the $30-billion bill on other grounds.
“I hope the White House understands the new math,” Mfume said.
But Administration officials said they believe that they have a better chance to round up enough votes to squeeze the bill through the House than to break what is certain to be a Republican filibuster over the racial justice provision in the Senate.
One sign that the Administration may have gambled correctly came late Thursday, when a group of 10 black big-city mayors--including Detroit’s Dennis Archer, Cleveland’s Mike White, Atlanta’s Bill Campbell and Denver’s Wellington Webb--wrote to Mfume, urging the Black Caucus to support the crime bill even without the racial justice provision.
In a copy of the letter provided to The Times, the mayors indicated support for the measure. But they wrote that they did not believe that it “should bring down the entire bill. . . . We cannot afford to lose the opportunities this bill provides to the people of our cities.”
Staunchly supported by the Black Caucus and civil rights organizations, the measure is opposed with equal intensity by the National Assn. of District Attorneys and other law enforcement groups, which maintain that it could undermine the death penalty.
For months, the Administration sought to duck that cross-fire by avoiding a public position on the issue. Even Thursday, while privately confirming Mfume’s account, the Administration declined to issue a formal statement--effectively leaving an Administration critic in the extraordinary position of publicly announcing the President’s long-awaited position on the most controversial issue left in the crime bill.
The extended dispute over the racial justice provision has virtually paralyzed the Administration between two contradictory goals: preventing an open conflict with the Black Caucus and other liberals while avoiding support for any provision that would appear to undercut Clinton’s support of the death penalty.
The central question now for Democratic vote counters is how many black representatives will abandon the legislation because the racial justice provision has been removed. Although some African American representatives are likely to oppose the bill because of the Administration’s decision, legislative sources said others still are likely to support the huge bill--which will offer nearly $20 billion to cities to hire 100,000 new police officers and fund crime prevention efforts ranging from job training to education programs.
The black mayors cited those provisions, as well as the bill’s ban on assault weapons, in their letter to Mfume. The crime bill also contains funds for new prisons, a three-strikes provision requiring life imprisonment for repeat offenders and an expansion of the federal death penalty.
One congressional source said it was noteworthy that Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), a principal sponsor of the racial justice measure and the only member of the Black Caucus on the conference committee, did not attend Mfume’s sharply worded press conference. And Mfume himself said only that “a majority of” the 38 Democratic members of the Black Caucus would oppose the legislation if the racial justice provision is not included.
One law enforcement lobbyist closely monitoring the bill also said it is unlikely that the entire Black Caucus will oppose the legislation without the racial justice provision. “I don’t think the caucus will walk en masse ,” the lobbyist said. “I think they are split up now.”
Still, liberals’ disappointment over the racial justice provision is almost certain to narrow the bill’s majority in the House. In the three-corner politics of the crime bill, that, ironically, may endanger one component of the bill that they ardently support: the ban on assault weapons.
One senior House aide said the shrinking margin for error strengthens the hand of conservative Democrats threatening to oppose the bill unless the assault weapon ban is watered down.
To discourage liberal defections, the Administration and House Democratic leaders are continuing discussions with supporters of the racial justice measure, offering carrots and sticks.
At a private meeting earlier this week, sources said, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno offered to Conyers a carrot: the formation of a commission to study the claims of racial bias in the application of the death penalty.
At the same time, the Administration has been arguing to liberals that, if their opposition kills the final bill in the House, it is likely that the conference then would tilt the measure further to the right in the hope of attracting more Republican support.