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Backers of Crime Bill to Push for Showdown Vote in House : Congress: Conceding they still lack the numbers to win, sponsors say gun lobby pressure is stripping support. ‘This is going to be a nail-biter,’ says one.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Worried that congressional support for a ban on assault weapons may be slipping in the face of fierce opposition by the gun lobby, backers of the Clinton Administration’s sweeping anti-crime bill said Wednesday they will seek a showdown vote on the House floor even though they lack the votes to assure passage.

In what he conceded was a high-risk gamble, Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading sponsor of the crime bill, said Democratic leaders will bring the long-stalled legislation to the floor today in the hopes that a handful of key uncommitted votes will go their way.

“This is going to be a nail-biter. . . . We will win or lose by two or three votes,” said Schumer, who conceded that supporters were still several votes short of the 218 needed to prevail on a procedural motion that opponents have been using to block the bill’s passage.

With health care reform having its troubles, the crime bill has assumed increasing importance to lawmakers eager to demonstrate that Congress can pass legislation responsive to voters’ concerns. The decision to force a vote on the Administration’s comprehensive anti-crime initiative represents a dramatic turnaround in the Democratic leadership’s strategy.

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Wednesday morning, supporters were confident that they were “slowly closing the gap,” in the words of one leadership aide, and they were reluctant to risk a floor fight until they could be assured of winning a procedural vote on a rule governing how the debate on the bill will be conducted. The rule must be adopted before the bill can be brought up for final passage.

But with the needed vote slowly being put together as President Clinton and other top Administration officials made a series of calls to wavering lawmakers, the Democratic leadership were shocked when several supporters defected from the President’s side under heavy pressure from the National Rifle Assn. and other anti-gun control groups.

“We’re gaining converts but we’re also losing some,” conceded Schumer, who said that GOP leaders had joined with the NRA to pressure House Republicans into voting against the procedural motion.

While Schumer declined to be more specific, Democratic sources said that, as of Wednesday morning, they were still eight votes short of the 218 needed to win the procedure vote. While that represented a net gain of at least two votes from the day before, Schumer and other sponsors were clearly concerned that further delays would risk losing more votes.

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“You get to the point where you have to roll the dice and take your chances and that’s where we are now,” said Schumer, who added that further delays would only “play into the hands of the NRA.”

A small number of lawmakers, including some moderate Republicans and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, were refusing to commit themselves either way, making the outcome unpredictable until the vote takes place, Schumer added.

Passed by a strong 285-141 margin in the House last April, the crime bill contains a record $33 billion to fund a variety of crime prevention and deterrent initiatives over the next six years.

On the deterrence side, it would expand the death penalty in federal cases, authorize nearly $9 billion in matching funds to help state and local governments hire 100,000 more police and provide more than $6 billion to fund new prison construction. It also contains the so-called three strikes and you’re out provision imposing mandatory life sentences for repeat felony offenders.

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On the prevention side, it would authorize $7.4 billion in new community programs designed to dissuade youngsters from joining street gangs by providing them with job training and after-school activities. It also would fund new drug treatment and prevention programs.

Most of the programs would be paid for by a special trust fund financed by the savings that are expected to accrue from a plan to cut the federal bureaucracy by more than 250,000 employees over the next five years.

Although liberal Democrats are unhappy with the death penalty provisions and Republicans have voiced scorn for what they see as wasteful spending on “social programs,” the current controversy centers on the assault weapons ban that was included by the Senate when it passed its version of the crime bill, 95 to 4, last November. Prohibiting the sale and manufacture of 19 types of semiautomatic assault weapons, the ban was later added by the House to its bill by a 216-214 vote.

The outcome was hailed at the time by gun-control advocates as evidence that the influence of the once-formidable NRA finally was waning amid a public outcry over rising crime--an issue that recent polls confirm is at the top of voters’ concerns in the countdown to this November’s midterm elections.

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But focusing on the procedural fight, the NRA has been mounting an intense lobbying counterattack to pressure about 80 Democrats who oppose gun controls to vote against the rule in the hope of stripping the weapons ban from the final bill.

“What’s going on right now is the legislative equivalent of the great shootout at the OK Corral,” said one Democratic aide of the furious behind-the-scenes lobbying by the NRA on the one hand and the Clinton Administration on the other. “The folks who danced on the NRA’s grave earlier this year were wrong. It’s back and it’s still a formidable lobby,” he added.

“The NRA has a lot of people scared up here,” agreed Rep. Ronald D. Coleman (D-Tex.). “Anybody that denies that is lying to you.”

Complicating this political calculus is the fact that members of the Black Caucus, which supported the original bill, threatened to vote against it after provisions intended to help prevent racial bias in death sentencing were dropped when the House bill was reconciled with the Senate’s version.

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A leadership source indicated Wednesday that the conservative Democrats were equally split, with about 40 resisting Clinton’s attempts to persuade them to support the rule. But he added that Clinton was gaining support from the Black Caucus as its 37 Democratic members “begin to realize that their pique over the death penalty provisions is only helping the NRA.”

One caucus member, Rep. Mel Reynolds (D-Ill.), said he was persuaded to change sides because of the “perverse” way in which the NRA had associated itself with the Black Caucus on the rules fight.

“I was going to vote against the rule because the racial justice provisions were dropped,” Reynolds said, brandishing one of several semiautomatic weapons displayed at a news conference. “But now I am going to vote for it because I will do nothing to help the NRA continue the madness on our streets.”


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