Weary Senate OKs Crime Bill After a GOP Challenge Fails : Congress: 61-38 vote sends $30-billion measure to Clinton and ends week of fractious struggle. Handful of Republicans breaks ranks to give Democrats the victory<i> .</i>
Capping a six-year congressional effort, a fractious and weary Senate late Thursday night passed sweeping crime legislation on a largely partisan 61-38 vote, sending it to President Clinton’s desk to be signed into law.
The narrow victory was something of an anticlimax, however. The issue was actually settled on a procedural vote earlier in the day, when six Repubicans broke ranks to join the majority in advancing legislation that was a top priority for the Clinton Administration and Democratic lawmakers seeking reelection.
In that earlier action, the minority party failed by two votes to muster the 41 votes needed to reopen the $30-billion bill to a series of amendments that likely would have been unacceptable in the House, thus dooming the legislation.
Approval of the measure was a much-needed victory for the President, who had made the crime bill a central element of his domestic agenda. Indeed, had a Democratic chief executive failed to win passage of legislation with such powerful public appeal from a Congress controlled by his own party, it would have thrown significant doubt on the party’s ability to govern.
The 61-39 procedural vote came at the close of a difficult week of fraying tempers and partisan friction. In the end, an insufficient number of Republicans were willing to risk killing the bill during an election year when crime ranks at the top of the public’s agenda. One Democrat abandoned his party to vote with the losing side.
A jubilant Clinton, having for the second time narrowly averted a devastating defeat on the bill, lauded “senators of both Republican and Democratic ranks who put law and order, safety and security, above politics and party.”
The centerpiece of the six-year legislation is $13.5 billion to be spent on state, local and federal law enforcement. Of that amount, $8.8 billion would be matching funds, aimed at the hiring of 100,000 officers to carry out community policing. Republicans maintain that the funds would put only a fraction of that number of officers on the street.
The measure also would ban 19 types of assault-style weapons, a provision strongly advocated by law enforcement officials and championed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), and would enact a federal “three strikes, you’re out” provision, which would require life sentences for those convicted of violent and drug offenses for a third time.
Additionally, the bill authorizes $9.85 billion to be spent on prison construction, with almost $8 billion of that in state prison grants and the remainder going to reimburse states for incarcerating illegal immigrants.
The effort required to pass the bill marked something of a setback for the White House and the Senate’s Democratic leadership. The struggle took so much time that weary senators, already two weeks late in beginning their August recess, were unwilling to stay in session to continue their debate on health care. Now, health legislation will not be voted upon by either house until after Labor Day--a delay generally regarded as boding ill for passage of the ambitious bill this year.
Republican opponents scoffed at the suggestion that the crime measure would make the nation more safe or secure and said it included a number of old-fashioned liberal social-spending programs wrapped in the guise of crime-fighting provisions. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) went so far as to call the bill a “gravy-sucking pig.”
“This bill is not tough on crime. Most of this money in this bill is going to be used to reelect people (the Democrats) want to reelect,” by funneling billions of federal dollars into local communities, Hatch said.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) branded the bill “business as usual--spend a lot of money and tell people you’re going to solve their problems.” He and others vowed to fight the issue again next year, when the money authorized under the bill must be appropriated. And they said the issue would continue to define a fundamental difference between the two political parties.
Republicans had sought to make 10 amendments to the measure, most of which would either strip it of spending or add tougher penalties for certain crimes tried in federal court.
However, such changes would have forced yet another vote in the House, and Democratic leaders warned that the fragile coalition that passed the bill there last Sunday would collapse if it were altered.
Moreover, the Democrats insisted that the Republican effort was really an indirect campaign to eliminate the measure’s ban on assault weapons.
In many ways, the struggle in the Senate was a reprise of last week’s battle in the House. There too, victory hinged on a procedural vote--one that the Democrats lost the first time they tried it two weeks ago--and on winning the support of a handful of moderate Republicans.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) compared the four-day drama in the Senate to “a poker game” and, indeed, it was difficult to tell which side was bluffing and which actually had the cards.
By tying their demands to a procedural issue that required 60 votes, the Senate Republicans strengthened their hand and, until Thursday, it appeared that they might have the 41 votes they needed to prevail.
Earlier in the week, Dole produced a letter signed by 40 other Republican senators who had indicated that they would join their leader in the procedural maneuver “unless most of our concerns are resolved.” Had they held together as a group, they would have been able to block the bill.
Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) managed to peel off the votes he needed by raising the stakes a bit: He offered the Republicans a vote on the spending amendments they sought, but not the ones that would have stiffened penalties for federal crimes.
When their leaders rejected that proposal, two of the letter’s signers--Sens. Nancy Landon Kassebaum of Kansas and John H. Chafee of Rhode Island--switched sides.
In a statement, Kassebaum said she was “disappointed that a majority of the Republican Party rejected an offer to vote on an additional $5-billion cut in social-spending programs. On balance, however, I believe the positive aspects of the bill outweigh the negatives.” Chafee could not be reached for comment.
Of the six Republicans who ultimately voted with the Democrats on the procedural vote, three, including Chafee, are up for reelection, and one is retiring from the Senate at the end of this year.
The retiring Republican, John C. Danforth of Missouri, said he felt “lousy, just lousy” about breaking ranks. But he noted: “What I liked about this legislation is what was so casually labeled pork,” such as after-school programs aimed at keeping young people off the streets.
The other Republicans voting to let the bill proceed were James M. Jeffords of Vermont, William V. Roth Jr. of Delaware and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. They were joined in voting for the bill on final passage by Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Me.).
The lone Democrat to side with the majority of Republicans on the procedural vote was Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, who is perhaps the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. On final passage, Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), an ardent foe of the death penalty, also voted against the bill.
One senator, Republican Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, did not participate in the final vote.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) dismissed a suggestion that election-year politics accounted for the bill’s passage after six years of failure. He noted that the years of political struggle had produced dramatic changes in the general thrust of the measure.
“This is the first bill ever, including the original one that I wrote six years ago, that actually had included significant commitment to local law enforcement, significant commitment to prisons, significant commitment for prevention--a formula every single, solitary criminologist in America has agreed with,” Biden said.
Mitchell called the bill “a good, strong, fair, balanced bill,” that is “not a victory or defeat for any political party or any elected office-holder. This is a victory for the American people.”
The section of the bill most harshly criticized by the Republicans would give $6.9 billion to crime prevention programs. While the $1.6 billion set aside to fight violence against women was widely praised, opponents zeroed in on the fact that the same amount would be spent for flexible grants to local authorities.
The “midnight basketball” programs that could be financed under this section became a symbol of liberal excess in the bill, but in fact, they have won wide support from law enforcement officials as a means of giving potential criminals other pursuits.
The bill also would authorize the death penalty for more than 50 federal crimes, including carjacking slayings, drive-by shooting murders and large-scale drug trafficking.
The assault-weapons ban applies both to 19 named types of guns and scores of others that are deemed to have similar characteristics. Those already owned when the law takes effect would be exempt.
Breakdown of Crime Bill Vote
This is the 61-38 roll call Thursday night by which the Senate voted to pass the crime bill. On this vote, a “yes” vote was a vote to pass the bill and a “no” vote was a vote to defeat the bill.
Alabama: Heflin (D) Yes; Shelby (D) No; Alaska: Murkowski (R) No; Stevens (R) No; Arizona: DeConcini (D) Yes; McCain (R) No; Arkansas: Bumpers (D) Yes; Pryor (D) Yes; California: Boxer (D) Yes; Feinstein (D) Yes; Colorado: Brown (R) No; Campbell (D) Yes.
Connecticut: Dodd (D) Yes; Lieberman (D) Yes; Delaware: Biden (D) Yes; Roth (R) Yes; Florida: Graham (D) Yes; Mack (R) No; Georgia: Coverdell (R) No; Nunn (D) Yes; Hawaii: Akaka (D) Yes; Inouye (D) Yes; Idaho: Craig (R) No; Kempthorne (R) No.
Illinois: Moseley-Braun (D) Yes; Simon (D) Yes; Indiana: Coats (R) No; Lugar (R) No; Iowa: Grassley (R) No; Harkin (D) Yes; Kansas: Dole (R) No; Kassebaum (R) Yes; Kentucky: Ford (D) Yes; McConnell (R) No; Louisiana: Breaux (D) Yes; Johnston (D) Yes.
Maine: Cohen (R) Yes; Mitchell (D) Yes; Maryland: Mikulski (D) Yes; Sarbanes (D) Yes; Massachusetts: Kennedy (D) Yes; Kerry (D) Yes; Michigan: Levin (D) Yes; Riegle (D) Yes; Minnesota: Durenberger (R) No; Wellstone (D) Yes.
Mississippi: Cochran (R) No; Lott (R) No; Missouri: Bond (R) No; Danforth (R) Yes; Montana: Baucus (D) Yes; Burns (R) No; Nebraska: Exon (D) Yes; Kerrey (D) Yes; Nevada: Bryan (D) Yes; Reid (D) Yes; New Hampshire: Gregg (R) No; Smith (R) No.
New Jersey: Bradley (D) Yes; Lautenberg (D) Yes; New Mexico: Bingaman (D) Yes; Domenici (R) No; New York: D’Amato (R) No; Moynihan (D) Yes; North Carolina: Faircloth (R) No; Helms (R) No; North Dakota: Conrad (D) Yes; Dorgan (D) Yes.
Ohio: Glenn (D) Yes; Metzenbaum (D) Yes; Oklahoma: Boren (D) Yes; Nickles (R) No; Oregon: Hatfield (R) No; Packwood (R) No; Pennsylvania: Specter (R) Yes; Wofford (D) Yes; Rhode Island: Chafee (R) Yes; Pell (D) Yes; South Carolina: Hollings (D) Yes; Thurmond (R) No.
South Dakota: Daschle (D) Yes; Pressler (R) No; Tennessee: Mathews (D) Yes; Sasser (D) Yes; Texas: Gramm (R) No; Hutchison (R) No; Utah: Bennett (R) No; Hatch (R) No; Vermont: Jeffords (R) Yes; Leahy (D) Yes; Virginia: Robb (D) Yes; Warner (R) No.
Washington: Gorton (R) No; Murray (D) Yes; West Virginia: Byrd (D) Yes; Rockefeller (D) Yes; Wisconsin: Feingold (D) No; Kohl (D) Yes; Wyoming: Simpson (R) No; Wallop (R) Not Voting.