President Clinton declared Saturday that he will not deal away a proposed ban on assault weapons in order to secure passage of his sidetracked crime bill, despite efforts by his aides to find middle ground with lawmakers who oppose the ban.
"Let me be clear about this," Clinton said during his weekly radio address. "The crime bill must ban assault weapons that have no place on our streets."
The President's remarks appeared to be aimed at House Democrats, who are openly divided over how to advance the crime bill after Thursday's crushing decision against sending the $33-billion package to the House floor for debate and a vote.
As White House aides and House leaders have strategized over their next move, some Democrats have urged that the bill be sent back intact for a second vote.
But others have wondered aloud whether the better approach would be backing off the provision banning 19 semiautomatic assault weapons to get support from lawmakers who point to the gun-control provision as the reason for withholding their vote.
The bill calls for hiring 100,000 additional police officers, building new prisons and jails and expanding federal crime-prevention programs. The legislation also would require life imprisonment for repeat offenders of federal crimes and would expand the number of federal crimes subject to the death penalty.
An assortment of legislators joined forces Thursday night in a 225-210 procedural vote that blocked the legislation from reaching the House floor. Democratic leaders are trying to win over at least eight opponents so they can call another vote on the measure early this week.
The bill stalled in part because Republicans objected to funding for social programs, while a coalition of liberal and black Democrats balked at the death penalty measures. The concerns about assault weapons crossed party lines. Supported by the National Rifle Assn., House Republicans and some Democrats--notably those from Southern states--are reluctant to back any bill that restricts gun ownership.
"We can have a crime bill, but the question is what happens to the assault-weapons ban," said Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, the Democrats' chief deputy whip, as lawmakers scrambled to figure out how to salvage the legislation.
Clinton, sounding more forceful on the assault-weapons ban than in the past, struck a defiant note, saying the ban is non-negotiable. He urged the public to express its outrage to lawmakers.
"The American people have to make it clear to members of Congress from both parties that even if they disagree with a particular measure in this crime bill, the overall bill is the best, the smartest bill we have ever had in this country," Clinton said.
Clinton's comments, broadcast from the Camp David, Md., presidential retreat, was part of a coordinated Administration effort to increase political pressure on lawmakers who voted against the crime bill.
In the GOP response to the radio address, Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa complained that the crime bill had been "gutted behind closed doors." He said its toughest provisions had been replaced with "pork-barrel projects and spending for dance classes, midnight basketball and arts and crafts."
"While the President supported this watered-down bill, it wasn't tough enough for the American people," he said.
Meanwhile, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno emerged from a closed-door meeting with a group of law enforcement officials to dramatize the Administration's solidarity with police--and to focus public anger on any House member who votes a second time to block passage of the crime bill.
"Those who voted the wrong way on this bill are catching a lot of hell back home," Panetta said. "And, very frankly, the purpose of this fight is to make sure that they think twice about what their vote's going to be the next time this bill comes back."
At a news conference following a meeting with Senate Democratic leaders, Dole said Panetta brought up the possibility of allowing a separate vote on the ban during a conversation early Saturday morning.
House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who stood beside Dole during the news conference, welcomed the idea of casting a separate vote on the assault-weapons ban. "We think there should be a free-standing vote on its merits," he said.
A White House spokesman, however, said Panetta was not the person who broached the subject of voting separately on the assault-weapons provision.
"Dole made the first offer" to call a separate vote, the spokesman said. He added that Panetta called Dole and Gingrich to open lines of communication on the crime bill, but "made no offers and struck no deals" concerning the assault-weapons ban.
"There is only one signal coming out of the White House--the one that the President said in his radio address," the spokesman said. "We think the assault ban should be a part of the crime bill."