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Clinton Agrees to Deep Cuts in Crime Bill

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Unable to get the votes he needs from Democrats opposed to an assault-weapons ban, President Clinton agreed Thursday to make major spending cuts in his anti-crime initiative to win more Republican support for the threatened measure, White House and congressional sources said.

After another day of intensive but largely fruitless efforts to win over a handful of elusive votes, Clinton summoned Democratic House and Senate leaders to the White House for a crisis session on the crime bill. The legislation has been stalled in the House for the last week because of opposition from Republicans and conservative Democrats opposed to its ban on assault weapons.

Congressional sources said after the meeting that, given a choice between making the steep cuts Republicans favor in the bill’s crime prevention programs or siding with approximately 40 conservative Democrats by dropping the assault-weapons ban, Clinton opted for more cuts beyond the $1 billion he had been offering to shave from the $33-billion bill.

Although the sources cautioned that no deal had been cut, they said that House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and other Democratic House leaders are working on a proposal that would strip more than $3 billion from the bill and make other concessions--but leave the assault-weapons ban intact.

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There was no immediate comment from House GOP leaders, who earlier in the day had said they would insist on cuts of at least $5.5 billion--mostly from the $7.4 billion the bill provides for crime prevention programs such as midnight basketball leagues and after-school activities for violence-prone youths.

But Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the leader of a group of 11 moderate Republicans who voted with the Administration when opponents used a procedural motion to block the crime bill from coming to the House floor last week, indicated earlier that more of his GOP colleagues would vote for the bill if Clinton would accept cuts “in the $2-billion to $3-billion range.”

Democratic sources said those reductions probably would be accomplished by an across-the-board cut of 10% in all of the bill’s prevention and law enforcement provisions for an overall savings of about $3.3 billion.

In addition, they said, some of the remaining $6.5 billion in funding for crime prevention initiatives likely would be turned into grants that city and state governments could use as they see fit--a concession that would meet another Republican demand.

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With measures on crime and health care reaching critical points in Congress, the White House announced that Clinton will appear at a press conference at 10:30 a.m. PDT today to take questions from reporters on those topics and others.

The crime bill proposals were being refined late Thursday night and will be “shopped around” to lawmakers Friday in the hope that the measure can be brought back to the floor with enough bipartisan support to pass it by Sunday or Monday, the sources said.

However, a source close to the negotiations cautioned that the proposals still are subject to change.

Moreover, this source said, it is by no means certain that the compromise would mean passage of the bill because members of the Congressional Black Caucus and other liberal lawmakers have threatened to turn against it if Clinton agrees to cuts of more than $350 million in crime prevention programs. Democratic leaders have been offering cuts in that range to Republicans for several days.

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“It’s not clear that we can pick up enough Republicans to compensate for the liberals we lose, and if we can’t, then it will be back to the drawing boards,” said another senior Democratic source, who, like everyone else associated with the delicate negotiations, would not speak on the record.

The likelihood of a liberal stampede away from the bill was confirmed earlier in the day by Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.), who said that the 33 caucus members who have thus far agreed to support the bill would begin to “drop off” if the crime prevention programs they favor are cut by more than $350 million.

Two of those members, Reps. Craig Washington (D-Tex.) and Louis Stokes (D-Ohio), only reluctantly agreed to support the package Thursday, bringing the Administration to within three votes of the 218 it needs to win the procedural motion that opponents had been using to block the bill.

But neither lawmaker, who had opposed the bill because of its expanded death penalties, have officially announced their support yet, and a Democratic leadership aide said he fears that they may refuse now that the package is being changed to make it more acceptable to Republicans.

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“This thing is such a delicate balancing act that, if you do one thing to get this group of lawmakers, you almost automatically lose that group of lawmakers. Everything about this bill seems to be governed by the physical laws of equal and opposite reactions,” he said.

Nevertheless, the mood at the White House after the emergency strategy session was decidedly more upbeat than it had been just a few hours earlier, when frustrated Democrats were talking for the first time about the possibility that the crime bill would not pass at all this year.

“I think we’re going to come up with a bill that meets the President’s objectives, and I think it’s going to pass,” White House adviser George Stephanopoulos said after the meeting between Clinton, Foley, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) and House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

“We’ll be concentrating more on Republicans than Democrats,” another senior White House source added, referring to the strategy that Clinton and his congressional lieutenants decided to use in their last-ditch effort to save the bill before the House breaks next week for its already twice-delayed summer recess.

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“It will still be hard and it’s going to be an up-and-down ride until we get the votes we need,” but for the first time in days the mood at the White House is upbeat and Clinton is hopeful that Foley can bring the bill up for a vote on final passage by Monday, the source added.

Once the House completes action on the bill, it will move immediately to the Senate, where it is expected to pass without difficulty.

Although funding for things like prison construction and additional police officers on the streets would also be trimmed back by the cuts, the bill would retain such provisions as expanded death penalties for federal offenses, legislation to help protect the victims of spousal abuse and the so-called “three strikes and you’re out” clause mandating sentences of life imprisonment for three-time convicted felons.

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

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