The state Senate, urged on by two combat war veterans of different generations, voted Wednesday to scrap California's landmark ban on military-style assault guns and replace it with an even more comprehensive prohibition.
The upper house approved the measure on a 22-13 vote and returned the bill to the Assembly, where its fate appeared to dangle by a single vote. A final lower house vote could come Friday, the last day of the legislative session.
The bill, AB 23 by Assemblyman Don Perata (D-Alameda), won Assembly passage in June with the bare minimum of 41 votes. But since then, one of its backers, Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles), resigned to accept a post in the Clinton administration.
"It's going to be tight. I don't know whether we have the votes," Perata said.
The Senate vote came as legislators scrambled to strike deals on an array of issues, from a tax cut and a state employee pay raise, to a reduction in fees at state universities. They also were deciding hundreds of measures ranging from new protections for homosexuals to whether teenagers must wait six months after receiving their learner's permits before getting their driver's licenses.
Complicating matters, however, was a turf battle that broke out between the Senate and Assembly, with each house delaying action on the others' bills.
Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) blamed the rift on disagreements over pending gambling measures, including one by Senate leader Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) to increase regulation of card clubs and another by Bustamante and Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) dealing with gambling on Indian reservations.
"I'm not throwing hand grenades in his direction and he has not thrown any in mine. He may have thrown a firecracker," Bustamante said, downplaying the tiff.
Adding to the day's drama, Senate aides used a wheelchair to usher an ailing Sen. Ralph Dills (D-El Segundo) into the Senate chambers. Dills, 87, cast the deciding vote on a stalled bill that could change the state Constitution to make it easier for local voters to approve school bonds.
Dills' appearance was the first in several weeks. Aides said he had knee surgery. When he arrived at the rear of the Senate chambers, legislators rushed to greet him.
Dills' vote came on bill that is a key component of a package that includes an $8-billion bond measure that would go before voters next year to finance school construction.
The bill by Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-Santa Barbara) would ask voters to reduce the vote requirement for approving local school bonds from the current two-thirds majority to a simple majority.
Dills remained in the Senate for half an hour, then was wheeled out and driven back to his small ranch in suburban Sacramento.
The measure now goes to the Assembly, where legislators are skeptical that it will be approved by Friday.
On the assault weapons bill, debate in the Senate turned emotional when it won the support of two combat veterans, Democrats Mike Thompson of St. Helena, an Army infantryman who fought in Vietnam, and Ruben Ayala of Chino, a Marine who saw action in Pacific campaigns during World War II.
"I had assault weapons used against me. I used them," Ayala said. "There is no place on the streets of America for any assault weapons."
"You don't use these types of weapons to hunt anything but other human beings," added Thompson, a gun owner and hunter.
Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) dismissed the attack on assault guns as a "PR ploy" fashioned by what he called liberals and "propagandists" in the news media to blame guns for crime instead of individuals.
California's assault weapons law was enacted in 1989 after the slaughter of five children at a Stockton school by a gunman wielding a Chinese-made AK-47 assault rifle.
The 1989 law banned by brand name and model about 60 semiautomatic rifles, pistols and shotguns. Gun makers, dealers and buyers found the law easy to evade. Newer models included minor changes and new names.
Perata's measure would eliminate the list of specific guns, and replace it with a more far-reaching generic definition of what constitutes an illegal assault weapon in California.
Gov. Pete Wilson has not indicated whether he will sign Perata's bill. Nor has he said whether he will sign legislation approved earlier in the week by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) to ban the manufacture and sale of cheap handguns.
Among the deals in the works is one pushed by Wilson to require a statewide test of all public school students in grades 2 through 11. Lockyer said earlier this week that he was pessimistic the Legislature would approve the test.
But Assembly members continued to work on the testing bill, and one of the key Assembly negotiators, Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael), said Democrats have worked out a compromise with Wilson to ensure that tests would be given in Spanish to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
Adding to the impetus, Wilson is holding firm to his pledge to refuse to fund many legislators' pet projects unless a testing bill is approved. Wilson wants a test to can determine whether his education initiatives such as class-size reduction have worked.
In addition, the Senate and Assembly have apparently reached an agreement with Wilson on a plan to speed death penalty appeals. Legislators intend to create an office to oversee the appeals, and pay private attorneys $125 an hour, rather than the current $98, to handle the appeals of convicted murderers on death row.
The state Supreme Court would oversee the new office, called the California Habeas Resource Center. It would have 30 lawyers plus investigators and other staff who would handle condemned prisoners' habeas corpus appeals, which are the appeals that follow unsuccessful first appeals to the state Supreme Court.
As it is, 154 condemned prisoners, almost a third of California's death row inmates, have no lawyers for their appeals.
"It will speed up bringing the cases to a final conclusion," said Lockyer, who is carrying the bill, SB 1088.
Other measures before the Legislature include:
* Gay rights--The Senate gave final legislative approval to AB 257 by Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) to strengthen and extend anti-discrimination protections for gays in housing and employment.
* Licenses--The Assembly approved and returned to the Senate a bill by Sen. Tim Leslie (R-Carnelian Bay) to make teenagers wait six months after getting their learner's permits before getting their licenses.
* Vehicle fees--The Senate approved and sent to Wilson SB 720 by Lockyer to allow county supervisors to impose a $1 increase in vehicle registration fees to help pay for improved fingerprinting equipment for county sheriffs.
Times staff writer Max Vanzi contributed to this story.