Senate and House negotiators ended a political impasse and approved a massive $32.8-billion crime bill Thursday that would put 100,000 more police officers on the street, ban combat-style assault weapons, build more prisons and require life terms for three-time violent offenders.
The long-delayed measure, immediately hailed by President Clinton as the "toughest, largest and smartest federal attack on crime" in U.S. history, was sent to the House and the Senate for up-or-down votes, which are expected next week.
While Democratic leaders predicted that the bill would be approved in both chambers, Republicans denounced it as a "big-spending boondoggle" that would be too soft on criminals. In addition, many Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus were unhappy over the failure to include a controversial "racial justice" provision aimed at halting bias in imposing the death penalty. Other Democrats opposed the new weapons ban.
Advocates, however, said that the 1,100-page measure strikes the right balance between punishment and prevention, including strong provisions to deal with violence against women and $1 billion to add 1,000 agents and bolster control of illegal immigration at the nation's borders. It also includes dozens of new federal death penalties and stiffer sentencing provisions.
To celebrate the agreement Thursday, Clinton appeared with 200 law enforcement officers from across the nation at a Justice Department rally, complete with a brass band.
"I assure you I will sign it into law without delay," Clinton said. "It puts more police on the street and takes more children off the street. It puts violent criminals behind bars and gives others the chance to avoid a life behind bars."
The President clearly hopes that the crime bill will reverse the downward trend in his popularity ratings. Public opinion polls have indicated that crime is regarded as the most pressing concern in all parts of the nation, far ahead of health care.
A Los Angeles Times Poll this week indicated that the crime bill enjoys broad support, with 67% of those surveyed nationally in favor of the bill and 26% opposed. Even those who identified themselves as Republicans backed the measure, 64% to 30%.
As the legislation made its way through Congress, Clinton had to walk a politically difficult line, backing some get-tough provisions admired by conservatives and moderates in his party but also supporting multibillion-dollar spending on prevention programs that appealed to liberal Democrats.
His supporters in Congress dropped some major Republican proposals, including one by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.) that would have made it a federal offense to commit a crime with a gun and another by Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), that would have imposed mandatory minimum sentences from 10 years to life in prison for carrying or using a gun during the commission of a crime.
Opponents said that these provisions would have turned scores of thousands of routine crimes into federal offenses that are better handled at the state and local levels, thus clogging federal courts and federal prisons.
Thursday, leading Republicans, who had tried without success to cut spending on crime prevention programs and devote the funds to prison construction or to law enforcement, indicated that they would oppose the measure on the House and Senate floors on grounds that it contains $7.3 billion of dubious social spending and is not tough enough on hard-core criminals.
"It's loaded with billions of dollars for pork," complained Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who said that he is inclined to vote against it.
"All the tough provisions are gone," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.). "Congress may have flunked its most important crime-fighting challenge."
"The Democrats got a 'twofer'--a crime bill and President Clinton's stimulus program," quipped Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), alluding to Clinton's defeated 1993 plan to spend $16 billion to stimulate the economy.
The legislation contains a unique funding arrangement, funneling $30.2 billion in savings from cutbacks in federal payrolls over the next six years into a trust fund that will be used to finance almost all of the anti-crime programs. An additional $2.6 billion was authorized, mostly for prisons.
The biggest share of funds--$13.4 billion--would be earmarked for law enforcement and courts. Of that total, $8.8 billion was allocated for 100,000 community-based police, or about a 20% increase in police strength nationally. That element would carry out one of Clinton's campaign promises.
The Los Angeles area, for example, would get funds to add 1,500 to 2,000 police officers for a period of six years, after which local governments would have to take over the costs.
In addition, the city would receive about $28 million in Local Partnership Act funds, which allow broad discretion for cities to design their own crime-fighting programs.
Grants for more officers would be made by the Justice Department, partly under a formula that would assure every state a share of the funds. Local governments would have to put up a share equal to 25% of the federal outlay.
A total of $8.3 billion from the trust fund and another $2.2 billion from general revenues would be allocated for state and local prison construction or operation. Of that total, $1.8 billion would be used to help compensate states for imprisoning illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
Another $1.3 billion would be spent on "drug courts," a system that requires treatment for addicts rather than imprisoning them. A total of $425 million would be allocated for drug treatment of federal and state prisoners.
About $7.3 billion would be spent over the six-year period for a range of crime prevention programs, such as grants to high-crime areas for economic development, anti-gang activities, midnight sports leagues, youth employment services and police partnerships with children.
Seeking to avoid a Senate filibuster, the conferees dropped the House-passed "racial justice" provision that would have allowed challenges to death sentences on the basis of statistical evidence indicating racial bias in the criminal justice process.
The latest Times Poll indicated that a large majority of those questioned--63% to 23%--opposed the racial justice measure. Even blacks opposed the measure but by a smaller margin, 46% to 37%.
Clinton indicated that he would sign an executive order to deal with racial bias in the administration of the death penalty in federal cases.
The bill represents a setback for the National Rifle Assn., which had led the fight in Congress against the ban on 19 specific semiautomatic assault weapons and their look-alike versions that was championed in the Senate by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this story.
The $33-Billion Compromise
The compromise reached by House and Senate negotiators would:
Put 100,000 more police on the street
Build more prisons
Ban 19 basic models of assault-style firearms.
Provide life imprisonment for three-time violent felons whose third offense was a federal crime.
Where the Money Would Go
State and local law enforcement: $10.7 billion
Prisons: $10.5 billion
Prevention: $7.3 billion
Federal law enforcement: $2.6 billion
Drug courts: $1.3 billion
The bill was sent to the House and Senate for expected votes next week. President Clinton hopes to sign it before Congress begins its summer recess Aug. 13.
67% of Americans Favor Bill
A Los Angeles Times Poll found overwhelming support for the bill, but Americans oppose the "racial bias" provision that was dropped by lawmakers.
Do you favor or oppose the comprehensive crime bill now before Congress?
Should it contain "racial bias" provision that would allow minority defendants a special death penalty challenge?
Source: Times Washington Bureau; Los Angeles Times national poll of 1,515 adults taken July 23-26.