GOP Launches New Offensive on Clinton’s Anti-Crime Measure : Congress: House hearing begins drive to shift spending from social programs to prisons, law enforcement. Battle over assault-weapons ban looms.


In an epic legislative struggle that nearly capsized his presidency, President Clinton last summer squeezed out a nail-biting victory on a six-year, $30-billion measure to fight crime. With congressional hearings that begin today, Republicans begin an aggressive drive to dismantle that legislation and recast it in a more conservative image.

After a fall election campaign in which tough promises on fighting crime helped to drive the historic GOP gains, Republicans are poised to refight the battles on spending priorities that they lost last summer and force onto the agenda long-sought conservative legal reforms that Democrats kept out of last year’s legislation.

In both chambers, Republicans are provoking major confrontations with Democrats by proposing to divert billions of dollars in social service “crime prevention” programs included in last year’s measure to prisons and law enforcement. At the same time, the GOP has taken aim at Clinton’s top priority by proposing to restructure the new federal aid for law enforcement in a manner that would make it impossible for the President to fulfill his signature promise to add 100,000 police officers to the nation’s streets.


“The sharpest points of conflict will be over cops in the street and the prevention programs,” said Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and criminal justice, which begins hearings on the bill today.

Even so, the biggest problem for the GOP may be not the Democratic opposition, but restraining the most conservative elements of its own coalition. Hoping to streamline action on the legislation, Republican leaders said they want to put off any effort to repeal the ban on assault weapons included in last year’s anti-crime legislation.

But officials at the National Rifle Assn.--whose campaign support was critical to the GOP gains last fall--said they have no intention of waiting. “Our priority is reversing the gun ban that was passed in the crime bill,” said Tanya K. Metaksa, chief lobbyist for the NRA. “We are going to work very hard to put a repeal on any crime bill that comes out of Congress.”


Believing that public opinion strongly supports restrictions on assault weapons, the White House and congressional Democrats are eager to frame the crime debate as a fight over guns. But beyond that, their strategy for blunting the GOP challenge remains less certain.

While the Administration is focused on protecting Clinton’s promise of 100,000 new police officers, House Democrats are circulating a letter urging him to threaten a veto against substantial cuts or elimination of crime prevention programs. Some key Administration strategists, though, are leery of being drawn into a debate in which Republicans are championing tough enforcement measures and the President is defending social programs.

Meanwhile, Democrats are divided internally over GOP proposals to limit Death Row appeals and loosen restrictions on the introduction of improperly seized evidence in criminal proceedings.


“It would be fantasy to believe we have a consistent line here,” said one Democratic congressional aide.

Like Clinton and President George Bush before him, congressional Republicans are likely to learn that promising a crime bill is easier than passing one.

Republicans still have to navigate differences between House and Senate proposals, potential divisions with party moderates who backed the final bill last year, and the prospect of a presidential veto. Indeed many Democrats say they believe that the party’s best hopes of influencing the bill may depend on Clinton’s willingness to wave his veto pen at the GOP.


The White House is “leery of threatening vetoes, but I think you will find some pretty strong language on defending the bill” in the State of the Union (Address), said Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the crime and criminal justice subcommittee.

In almost all respects, the debate that begins today simply picks up where last summer’s tumultuous legislative struggle ended. In late August, Congress completed six years of argument by clearing a huge bill that banned assault weapons; imposed life imprisonment on three-time convicted felons; toughened provisions for tracking released sex offenders and showered billions of dollars on prison construction, grants to cities to hire police officers and a diverse array of crime prevention programs.

But that victory came only after a coalition of Republicans and Democrats opposed to gun control defeated a procedural rule that would have allowed for the bill’s final passage on the House floor last August. That defeat forced Democrats to accept a series of Republican demands to shift money from prevention to law enforcement and prison construction and to toughen sentencing measures opposed by civil libertarians.


To a significant extent, Republicans are now pushing to write into law the negotiating positions that Democrats would not accept last summer. This battle will begin in the House, where Republicans laboring under the promise of completing action on their “contract with America” within 100 days are planning much quicker action than the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee does not plan hearings on the crime bill until late next month.

Above all, the 1994 anti-crime measure was shaped by the complex internal cross-pressures of the Democratic political coalition: It balanced billions of dollars in spending on prisons and police officers sought by moderates with a raft of new social programs--dubbed “crime prevention” programs--aimed at minority and liberal legislators.

In their bill, House Republicans propose to upend that balance. The bill would substantially increase funding for prison construction and eliminate most of the original measure’s $7 billion in prevention programs--which ranged from funds to provide after-school activities in troubled neighborhoods to broad discretionary grants for cities to experiment with coordinated anti-crime strategies. (Only a $1.8-billion program to deter and prosecute violence against women would be spared by the GOP.)

The Republicans also would eliminate the original measure’s $8.8-billion program of matching grants intended to encourage local communities to hire thousands of new police officers during the next six years.

Instead, the GOP proposes to fold both programs together into a single $10-billion “law enforcement block grant” for cities. Cities would have broad discretion to use the funds to hire or equip police officers, increase security at schools or fund prevention programs like those included as specific grants in last year’s bill.

Administration officials staunchly oppose the idea because the block grant would shower money on cities with relatively few guidelines--and, not incidentally, deny Clinton any prospect of fulfilling his 1992 promise to spur hiring of 100,000 new police officers.


One House Republican legislative aide acknowledged “it would sound naive to say that” the desire to deny Clinton success on the police program “was not a factor.”

For his part, McCollum acknowledged that the block grant approach involved a “trade off” that cities may misuse the money--as many did in buying exotic weaponry with grants from the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration in the 1970s. But, on balance, he argued, “giving cities maximum flexibility is the thing to do so every community is treated fairly.”

Beyond shifting resources, the Republicans are also pushing measures to limit appeals in federal courts from prisoners on Death Row and to reform the “exclusionary rule,” which bars prosecutors from introducing evidence seized improperly.

Republicans have revived a provision from last year’s measure that would establish federal penalties for any crime committed with a gun, though in somewhat narrower form. And they are pushing proposals to make it easier to deport non-citizens convicted of serious crimes--and more difficult for convicts to press lawsuits challenging prison conditions.

Even Democrats like Schumer conceded that the GOP is likely to prevail, at least in the House, on these measures. For Republicans, the joker in the deck is the volatile issue of gun control, which could derail their prospects of rapid action on the bill.


McCollum said “it is a given” that an amendment to repeal the assault-weapon ban will surface on the House floor sometime this session. But, he added, the GOP leadership would prefer that the vote come on some other vehicle than the crime bill.


It remains extremely uncertain, though, whether the NRA will agree to separate the issues--especially since that could give Clinton a cleaner shot at vetoing a repeal of the assault-weapon ban.

The NRA’s voice promises to be formidable in the coming session.

In the last election, Metaksa noted, the organization helped to elect so many gun-control opponents that they now count 224 of the 435 House members as supporters.

“It is my view that we hopefully have a majority” against gun control in the House, Metaksa said. “That is, if we haven’t been misled.”