An alliance of GOP lawmakers and Democratic gun-control opponents successfully blocked the House from voting on the long-stalled crime bill Thursday, dealing a major blow to the Clinton Administration and throwing the future of the massive $33.2-billion anti-crime initiative into grave doubt.
Republicans cast the narrow 225-210 defeat of a technical rule as an opportunity to redraft the bill to make it even tougher on crime. But Democrats said that the measure is now virtually dead for the year because no substitute is likely to pass the House without the provisions that Republicans oppose--a ban on assault weapons and funding for after-hours school programs to keep violence-prone youngsters off the streets at night.
Shortly after the vote, President Clinton denounced lawmakers on television for having “failed the American people.” He blamed Republicans and the gun lobby for defeating the bill on a “procedural trick” and demanded that Congress remain in session throughout a summer recess that is scheduled to begin next week, to vote again on a crime bill.
“I want them to come back tomorrow and the day after that . . . and to keep coming back until we give the American people the essential elements of this crime bill,” Clinton said.
But House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), who voted for the assault weapons ban when it was passed by the House earlier this year, said the final product that emerged from a House-Senate conference was an “unholy trinity of pork, posturing and partisanship.”
With Clinton’s health care initiative also in trouble, the effective defeat of the crime bill on a procedural motion meant that the Democrats who control Congress may have to face angry voters in November with few legislative accomplishments.
Losing the crime bill vote “is a very, very serious blow to the President,” said political analyst William Schneider. Because the crime bill addressed an issue that voters consistently rate as their top concern going into the November elections, Clinton’s defeat is likely to reinforce the growing perception that the President is a “weak and ineffectual leader who cannot deliver on his promises,” Schneider added.
The Administration’s prospects for reviving the bill rest on hopes that the public, which polls have shown strongly supports the measure, will rise up in anger against the House vote and force enough members of Congress to change their minds to get the bill through. “I think people will have trouble saying they didn’t bring home a crime bill because the NRA told them not to,” the official said.
In hopes of stirring that anger, Clinton hastily added a crime-related event to his schedule for today. Dropping plans to swear in Steven G. Breyer as a Supreme Court justice, Clinton will fly, instead, to Minneapolis to speak to the National Assn. of Police Organizations, which is meeting there. Vice President Al Gore will handle the Breyer swearing-in. But as they struggled to come to terms with the magnitude of their defeat, despondent Democrats were skeptical that another crime bill could be enacted in a Congress already preoccupied with trying to save the President’s foundering health care initiative.
“It’s criminal what happened,” sobbed Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.) as she emerged from a Democratic leadership meeting with tears streaming down her face.
The grim, stunned looks on the faces of Clinton’s allies confirmed that they shared her assessment as a coalition of Republicans and conservative rural Democrats opposed to gun control measures defeated--by a margin that was considerably larger than expected--a technical motion that had to be approved for the crime bill to come up for final passage.
Democrats generally avoided criticism of their fellow party members who voted against the bill. Clinton, when asked about the 58 defecting Democrats, sidestepped the issue, focusing his ire instead on Republicans who had voted previously for the assault weapons ban but voted against the bill Thursday.
With so much at stake, both sides waged one of the fiercest lobbying campaigns in recent memory in the days leading up the vote, with Clinton making a series of last-minute appeals to wavering lawmakers on a telephone line that the White House kept open to the Democratic cloakroom. White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta met personally with lawmakers throughout the day. And as the vote approached, he and other senior Administration officials predicted that the outcome would be extremely close--decided by no more than two or three uncommitted Democratic votes.
But the 15-vote margin by which the procedural motion lost was a double blow to the bill’s supporters because it underscored the Democratic leadership’s failure to keep its own troops in line on an issue that directly affected the President’s prestige and is likely to resonate loudly at the polls in November.
“If this vote was important for the Administration, it was critical for members of Congress,” agreed Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “Incumbents are looking at tough times this year and the only way for them to run is on a platform of accomplishments.” But with health care reform in trouble and the crime bill now thrown into legislative limbo, it looks increasingly unlikely that Congress will be able to deliver any major accomplishments this year, Mellman added.
Before their defeat, Democratic leaders said that they needed at least 10 Republican votes to offset the defection of anti-gun control Democrats and to prevail on the motion that would have cleared the way for the crime bill’s then-certain passage.
In the end, they got 11 Republican votes but they were not enough to offset the much larger than expected defection of 58 Democratic supporters of the National Rifle Assn. and other gun lobby groups that teamed up with the House GOP leadership to wage a fierce campaign against the bill because of a provision that would have imposed a 10-year ban on the manufacture and sale of 19 assault-type weapons.
“There was a larger backlash from the NRA Democrats than we anticipated,” said Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey, one of the Republicans who supported the bill. “I am just stunned at what happened,” she added.
“The American people were squeezed” by two forces, “the Republican Party and the NRA,” said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a leading sponsor of the bill who denounced the outcome as “despicable.”
Thursday’s vote promises to be a major issue in California’s U.S. Senate race, where crime has already dominated the campaign debate. After the vote, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein sharply criticized her Republican rival, Rep. Mike Huffington (R-Santa Barbara), for voting with the opposition.
“This bill is literally hundreds of additional police officers in Los Angeles that Mr. Huffington just turned his back on,” Feinstein said in a press conference. “California is deeply troubled by crime and violence, by gangs and by drugs. So the people are going to have to speak and the way they have to speak is with their vote.”
Feinstein, the Senate author of the assault weapons ban, said she was hopeful that the bill could be salvaged. “Let’s not dwell in defeat until the battle is really over,” she said. “The battle is not over.”
Huffington, who voted to support an earlier version of the crime bill last April, said that he joined the opposition Thursday because of the legislation’s crime prevention package.
“America does not need a spending bill that creates new welfare programs,” he said. “I know that if the conferees work on a bipartisan basis and report out a better bill we can pass good, tough crime legislation this year.”
Clinton urged Congress to rescue the main components of the bill by voting over again. The sweeping crime bill was to have made good on one of Clinton’s main campaign promises to provide the funds to put another 100,000 police officers on the streets of American cities.
Its broad mix of crime protection and prevention measures also included $7.4 billion for new community programs designed to dissuade youngsters from joining street gangs by providing them with after-hours sports and cultural activities at public schools.
Its main crime protection components would have expanded the death penalty to cover more than 50 federal offenses, provided nearly $9 billion in matching grants for new prison construction and mandated sentences of life imprisonment for three-time convicted felons--the so-called “three strikes and you’re out” provision.
All of the programs, funded over a six-year period, would have been financed by a special trust fund fed by the savings that are expected to accrue from a plan to cut the federal bureaucracy by more than 250,000 workers over the next five years.
The largest proportion of funding--about two-thirds of the $33.2-billion total--would have gone to law enforcement agencies, including $8.8 billion to help state and local governments hire 100,000 more police for street beats and community policing programs.
Under the expanded provisions for capital punishment, the death penalty would have been extended to include such crimes as drive-by murders, car-jacking slayings and major drug trafficking.
But while the bill contained many features that both Democrats and Republicans had sought--and which lawmakers from both parties said their constituents wanted--the Republicans complained that the bill was larded with too many wasteful pork-barrel projects inserted in conference to win members’ votes, citing a $10-million grant that House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jack Brooks (D-Tex.) inserted for his alma mater, Lamar University.
They also derided much of the spending included under the crime prevention provisions of the bill, saying that it amounted to little more than a thinly disguised attempt to re-wrap some of the social projects that Clinton was forced by congressional opposition to remove from his economic stimulus package last year.
“Our children don’t need more midnight basketball. Our children don’t need more arts and crafts. . . . Our children need more law enforcement,” declared Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.).
Republicans who supported the bill, however, said that wasteful spending had nothing to do with their GOP colleagues’ real objections to the package.
“The NRA and the assault weapons ban--that was the stealth issue here and it had nothing to do with pork,” Roukema said.
Rep. Christopher Shays, the Connecticut Republican who led the effort to round up GOP support for the bill, added that opposition by the NRA and political strong-arm tactics by the Republican National Committee in the end sent his colleagues “running for their lives.”
In a not-so-subtle threat, the committee sent all 38 Republicans who had voted for the assault weapons ban last May a copy of a resolution adopted in the wake of that vote by the Republican Party in Alaska, which called on the Republican committee to oppose the maverick Republicans’ reelection efforts.
Shays said that GOP operatives also called the district offices of the Republican weapons ban supporters to tell them that Republicans would not vote for them in November if they supported the crime bill rule.
In the end, Shays said the “pressure was so intense” that he all but abandoned his efforts to get fellow Republicans to vote for the rule, saying it was all he could do “just to get to the floor alive to cast my own vote.”
House Vote on Crime Bill
How members of the California delegation voted on whether to bring the crime measure to the House floor for consideration.
Democrats for--Becerra, Beilenson, Berman, Brown, Condit, Dellums, Dixon, Dooley, Edwards, Eshoo, Farr, Fazio, Filner, Hamburg, Harman, Lantos, Lehman, Martinez, Matsui, Miller, Mineta, Pelosi, Roybal-Allard, Schenk, Stark, Torres, Tucker, Waxman, Woolsey
Republicans against--Baker, Calvert, Cox, Cunningham, Doolittle, Dornan, Dreier, Gallegly, Herger, Horn, Huffington, Hunter, Kim, Lewis, McCandless, McKeon, Moorhead, Packard, Pombo, Rohrabacher, Royce, Thomas
Source: Associated Press
Bill’s Key Points
The $33.2-billion crime bill blocked Thursday by the House would have authorized:
* Spending $11.1 billion for state and local police, including $8.9 billion to help hire 100,000 new law enforcement officers to carry out community policing by learning about neighborhoods in an effort to prevent crime as well as catch lawbreakers.
* Tossing third-time violent and drug felons in prison for life if the third conviction is in federal court, but allowing the release of some over 70 after they served 30 years.
* Spending $10.5 billion for prisons, including $8.7 billion for state prisons and $1.8 billion to reimburse states for incarcerating criminal illegal immigrants. Recipient states would have had to keep prisoners incarcerated for 85% of their terms or make strides toward that goal.
* Banning 19 named types of assault-style firearms and scores of others deemed by the government to meet assault-style characteristics. It would have limited magazine capacity to 10 rounds. It would have exempted 650 named firearms and all guns legally owned when the law took effect.
* Spending $7.6 billion for crime prevention programs and $1.3 billion for drug courts. The prevention money would have included $1.8 billion for the Violence Against Women Act, including money for shelters, and $1.8 billion for flexible Local Partnership Act grants.
* Allowing some nonviolent, first-time drug offenders to avoid mandatory minimum 5- and 10-year federal penalties. It would have been retroactive for people now in prison, and Justice Department officials believe 5,000 prisoners might have been eligible. The “safety valve” would have been limited to those who used no gun or threat of violence, were not organizers and never served more than 90 days for another crime.
* Creating more than 50 new federal death penalty crimes. Many carried that penalty before the Supreme Court overturned capital punishment in 1972. But some would have been new, including car-jacking slayings, drive-by shooting murders and major drug-traffickers, even those not directly connected to any specific death.
Source: Times wire reports