GOP Is Primed for Amending Crime Measure : Senate: Republicans say spending cuts of $3.3 billion made by the House aren’t enough. They will try to block consideration of the bill.
A day after the House resuscitated a compromise $30-billion crime bill, the legislation began an equally dangerous journey Monday in the Senate, where Republicans warned that they will attempt a procedural maneuver to force major revisions.
“As much as anything I have ever voted on in 22 years as a United States senator, I believe passage of this legislation will make a difference in the lives of the American people,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said as debate on President Clinton’s bill began in the Senate.
However, Republican critics said that, even after the $3.3 billion in spending cuts that were forced in the House, the measure remains an exercise in liberal excess that will have little effect on crime.
“A vote for this bill is a vote to spend literally billions of dollars in 1960s-style social spending boondoggles,” insisted Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican.
Hatch ridiculed as “poppycock” the centerpiece of the legislation--its claim that spending $8.8 billion would allow the hiring of 100,000 more officers for community policing. He said that the number would be 20,000 at most and that only a fraction of those actually would be on the street.
The measure’s other provisions include the much-touted “three strikes” feature that would put third-time violent and drug felons in prison for life. But that would only apply to the relatively small number whose third convictions were in federal court.
The bill is vulnerable to the procedural move under an arcane Senate rule, known as a “point of order,” because its chief funding mechanism is a trust fund that was not approved by the Senate Budget Committee.
If the move succeeds, the bill then could be thrown open to amendment. However, Republican opponents must muster 41 votes to prevail and it is unclear whether they can do so.
Any changes again could jeopardize passage in the House--particularly if opponents of a ban on assault-style weapons use the procedural move to strip the bill of that provision. At a minimum, it would probably delay final passage until after Labor Day.
Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) warned that it would be “unwise both substantively and politically for anyone to try to obstruct passage of this bill.”
The Republicans insisted that they are not trying to kill a bill that would be the first major piece of crime legislation in six years. Rather, they said, they want to improve it. They said they would strip out what they considered unnecessary spending that would not contribute to reducing crime and would add harsher penalties for some types of offenses.
Asked whether he is fearful of the political consequences to his party of being labeled obstructionist, Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) replied: “Not since Br’er Rabbit and the briar patch has anybody been as comfortable as we are.”
Procedural moves can be just as devastating as outright defeats, but they also allow lawmakers to have more flexibility--and to avoid more blame--then with a straight up or down vote.
It was on a procedural vote that the House initially blocked consideration of the crime bill almost two weeks ago, before renegotiating the package and passing it, 235 to 195, on Sunday.
The divisions in the Senate are not entirely along party lines. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), for instance, said that although he does not consider it perfect, he would support the bill because “it spends a lot of money for a very, very important cause.”
Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Ida.) said that opponents are counting on the votes of at least three Democrats.
The Clinton Administration stepped up pressure Monday for the bill--a victory it badly needs, in no small part to create some momentum for its endangered health care effort.
Clinton met privately with several senators and White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta made the rounds of morning news shows, saying that opponents would be “a disgrace to the country” if they block the bill.