Deal Reached on Crime Bill; House Set to Vote Today : Congress: Marathon talks to win bipartisan support yield conferee approval on a scaled-back measure. Weary Democrats predict final tally will be close.
Meeting almost around the clock, congressional negotiators said early today that they had reached agreement on a sharply scaled-back version of President Clinton’s anti-crime bill that would be put to a vote in the House later today.
But in a sign that the legislative struggle over the troubled crime bill is far from over, exhausted Democratic leaders said they are not sure whether they have the votes to pass the legislation--even with the support of the moderate Republicans with whom they had been negotiating.
“It will be close, very close,” said Majority whip Bill Richardson (D-N.M.).
“We don’t yet have the votes,” Rep. Vic Fazio (D-West Sacramento) added grimly as he emerged from a leadership meeting shortly after midnight.
Having spent all day Saturday and the previous night in intensive negotiations with the GOP moderates on spending cuts, the Democratic leadership found itself struggling late Saturday night to counter a last-minute lobbying campaign by the National Rifle Assn., which wants to kill the bill because it contains a ban on the manufacture and sale of 19 assault weapons.
“The NRA had the field today,” Fazio said. The fierce, eleventh-hour lobbying blitz had cost Clinton’s allies the votes of “a few members” who have indicated they may support a rival crime bill proposal drafted by Republicans and about 40 Democrats who oppose gun control, Fazio said. Once again, he added, “the issue has come down to guns.”
House members were increasingly short-tempered and full of partisan bile--with Democrats and Republicans accusing each other of bad faith--as they waited all day to vote on the crime bill. Some lawmakers seemed eager to vote on almost any crime bill so they can begin a long-delayed summer recess.
While Democratic strategists expressed confidence that they would have enough votes to prevail on a procedural motion so the bill could then be considered on its merits, they indicated that support was too evenly divided for them to be certain about the outcome.
Between 30 and 40 moderate Republicans, led by former Delaware Gov. Michael N. Castle, were expected to vote with Democrats after an agreement to slice more than $3 billion from the crime bill’s original $33.2-billion price tag. Most of the cuts were to come from crime prevention programs ridiculed by the GOP members as “pork.”
But there was still no formal commitment from members of the moderate group, which was coming under heavy pressure from GOP leaders to vote against the new package. The Republican leadership contended that not enough money had been cut from “social spending” programs such as job training, midnight basketball leagues and other after-school activities for violence-prone youths.
More troubling for Clinton’s congressional allies, there were signs that the support of some Democrats who backed the original bill was waning as details of the compromise began to emerge. Liberal lawmakers, especially the 37 members of the Congressional Black Caucus, were upset with the steep spending reductions in crime prevention programs, as well as the inclusion of new, tougher language to expedite deportation of criminal immigrants.
Some conservative Democrats who supported the Administration last week indicated that they might switch sides to protest the fact that the leadership was demanding an immediate vote on a compromise crafted behind closed doors.
“This is no way to legislate. . . . We can’t hold an intelligent debate if we don’t know what’s in the bill and it’s going to take most members weeks to figure out what’s really in this agreement,” said Rep. Austin J. Murphy (D-Pa.), adding that he was “thinking seriously” of switching his vote.
Asked which bloc of votes he was most worried about losing, Richardson replied somberly: “All of them.”
Rushing down a hallway en route to one negotiating session from another, White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta was more optimistic. But he conceded that “heavy whipping” would be required to muster the 218 votes needed to pass the procedural rule and then the bill itself.
As what appeared to be another agonizingly close vote--characteristic of his tempestuous relationship with Congress--neared, Clinton used his weekly radio address to appeal for bipartisan passage of what he characterized as “the toughest” anti-crime legislation ever drafted by Congress.
“We must not let this chance pass by,” Clinton said. “We must seize the opportunity before us to make a dramatic difference in every neighborhood.”
But it took almost two days of nearly continuous negotiations to resolve details as the two sides haggled over provisions relating to rape prosecutions and early release of nonviolent drug offenders to make more room in overcrowded prisons for violent criminals.
The negotiations began Friday and continued through the night, with participants finally taking a break around dawn Saturday. The talks resumed late Saturday morning and dragged on through the day, stretching tempers to the breaking point and sparking new disagreements on the bill’s contents.
The disputes included GOP demands for procedures to expedite deportation of criminal immigrants, and a “truth in sentencing” proposal that would deny prison funding to states that fail to make repeat violent offenders serve at last 85% of their jail sentences.
Another potential snag emerged when some Democrats opposed to the assault weapons ban pressed for changes that would delay its implementation.
“We solve one thing and another thing comes up,” complained an exasperated Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) “It’s like nailing Jell-O to the wall.”
As Saturday wore on, the negotiators continued to predict that a compromise would eventually be reached--not so much because of Clinton’s appeal for bipartisan cooperation as because of legislative fatigue.
Exhaustion--and the knowledge that control of the House and Senate next year could turn on the fate of the crime bill--appeared to be the motivating force behind one key concession made by the Democrats to the group of Republican moderates led by Castle.
Under the formula finally adopted by the two sides, about $3.3 billion would be cut from the bill. Of that total, $2.5 billion would come from crime prevention programs and $800 million would come from funds for new prison construction and more police.
The $2.5-billion cut, which would reduce funding for the crime prevention side of the package to about $5 billion, would be accomplished by jettisoning a youth job training initiative and cutting remaining “social” programs in the bill by about 10%.
Overall, the ratio of money spent on the crime prevention provisions favored by liberals would drop to $1 for every $6 spent on the law enforcement programs favored by conservatives in the scaled-back bill.
The new ratio did not sit well with liberal lawmakers, especially the 37 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But the spending concessions appeared to be the only way the bill could muster enough Republican support to get around a roadblock erected by about 50 Democrats who opposed the assault weapon ban--the provision for which Clinton has fought the hardest and invested the most presidential prestige.