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Gap Narrows in Standoff Over Anti-Crime Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Congressional supporters and opponents of President Clinton’s beleaguered anti-crime bill narrowed some of their differences Wednesday but remained divided over the spending cuts that GOP lawmakers insist must be made to win their votes.

A day after he promised Republicans that he would agree to some of their demands, Clinton received good news and bad news about the uphill effort to save a $33.2-billion bill whose passage is seen as a critical test of his Administration’s ability to end gridlock in an intensely partisan Congress.

The good news came when three more members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who had opposed the anti-crime bill’s expanded death penalty provisions, agreed to switch their votes. Their reversals inched the Democratic leadership toward closing the eight-vote margin by which the House rejected a vote on the bill last Thursday in a procedural vote.

The bad news was that 11 Republicans who broke party ranks to vote for the bill last week were threatening to withdraw their support. They said that they would do so unless Clinton accepts steeper cuts than the Democrats so far have been willing to make in the $7.4 billion earmarked for after-school sports activities, drug counseling and other crime prevention programs.

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After declaring a truce in the fiercely partisan war that has raged over the last week, Clinton promised House GOP leaders Tuesday night that he would trim some of crime prevention funding. Republicans have ridiculed the spending as wasteful social spending that will have little effect on crime.

But as both sides toned down the rhetoric and got to work on the numbers Wednesday, it was clear that the two sides remain far apart.

Democratic leaders were shopping around a proposal to cut the crime prevention programs by 5% across the board, with the savings being transferred to prison construction and other law enforcement initiatives that Republicans favor.

House Minority Whip Newt Gingrich of Georgia and other Republican leaders, however, said that they would insist on cuts of about 50%, while the 11 GOP moderates who supported the bill said that they wanted to see at least $1 billion, or about 15%, removed.

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“Our bottom line is $1 billion. . . . Without that we can’t support it,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the unofficial spokesman for the GOP moderates, who have come under intense pressure from their leadership to switch votes.

Realizing that they cannot afford to lose those votes, Democratic leaders were said to be close to offering another compromise, in which one of two $600-million job-training programs would be dropped, a source close to the negotiations said. That plan would raise the savings to “nearly $1 billion along with the 5% cut,” the source said.

Although he would not say which program the leaders were considering cutting, the source indicated that the Democrats were looking for ways to satisfy the Shays group. “There is a way to close the gap with Shays, but the gap between what we’re offering and what Gingrich wants is just not bridgeable,” he said.

“We’re looking for a middle ground,” added Barbara B. Kennelly (D-Conn.). “We just haven’t found it yet.”

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Indeed, as the day wore on, early predictions that the House could complete action on the bill this week looked doubtful as the partisan rhetoric turned sour again amid mutual allegations of bad faith.

Every time the White House moves to meet the Republicans halfway, “they just escalate their demands,” complained House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), adding that the GOP leaders still seem intent on “killing the bill” and are not serious about seeking a compromise.

“The Democrats are still struggling with the idea that Republicans have to be treated like real human beings,” retorted Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), one of the GOP leaders. “That’s been a difficult concept for them to grasp.”

Still, Democrats said that the momentum once more appeared to be moving slowly toward final approval, following a morning meeting among Clinton and several members of the Black Caucus who were among the 58 Democrats voting against the anti-crime bill last Thursday.

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Afterward, three of the Democrats--Reps. Charles B. Rangel of New York, John Lewis of Georgia and Cleo Fields of Louisiana--said they had reluctantly agreed to set aside their reservations about the bill’s expanded death penalty provisions. They said that they would do so to help Clinton prevail on what has become one of the most important legislative votes of his presidency.

Democratic leaders hope that a victory on the anti-crime bill will help create the momentum they need to pass Clinton’s health care reform package this fall. A loss, however, would not only stall that momentum but deprive the Administration of any major legislative accomplishments in advance of November’s midterm elections, most Democrats believe.

“He was . . . selling his presidency, the party and the fact that we will not get a better bill than this,” Rangel said of the appeal that Clinton made to the caucus members.

Another sign of progress, both sides indicated, was that one of the anti-crime bill’s most controversial provisions--a ban on the manufacture and sale of 19 assault weapons--no longer is a point of major contention between Democrats and Republicans.

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“There are some of us who would still like to have that taken out of the bill . . . but most understand that’s not going to happen and so it’s not a key factor in what’s being discussed now,” said one of the GOP negotiators, Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.).

The assault weapons ban has “receded into the background, and the focus now is all on the money,” agreed Kennelly.

Another issue that appeared close to being resolved as the Democrats scoured both sides of the aisle for votes was language to strengthen a provision requiring convicted sexual offenders to report their addresses to authorities. At the request of several New York and New Jersey Republicans, that provision was amended to allow police to notify neighbors that a convicted sexual offender was living in their midst.

Buoyed by these signs of progress, a delegation of mayors said after meetings with both Democratic and Republican leaders that it believes the anti-crime bill may finally pass.

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“The crime bill is the boost that we’ve all been waiting for to make our cities safe,” said Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.

“We let them known that we represent a lot of people who are fed up with crime and want to see a solution,” added Mayor Norm Rice of Seattle.

Times staff writers John M. Broder, James Bornemeier and David Lauter contributed to this story.


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