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Sentate Rejects Procedural Move to Block Crime Bill

By Helen Dewar
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

A half-dozen Republican moderates joined Senate Democrats yesterday in beating back a GOP-led effort to block passage of President Clinton's $30.2 billion crime bill, putting the fiercely contested election-year bill on track for final approval.

With only one vote to spare, the Senate voted 61 to 39 to reject a procedural challenge supported by most Republicans that could have derailed the measure a second time-less than a week after it had been brought back to life by a similar bipartisan rescue effort in the House.

The bill faces another 60-vote procedural hurdle before it can be sent to Clinton for signature. But Democratic leaders, who earlier promised weary colleagues they could leave for a two-week recess as soon as they approved the bill, said enactment by week's end was a virtual certainty.

The vote gave a big boost to Clinton at a time when his health care bill was slipping away from him, enabling the president to claim credit for the biggest crime bill in history at a time when polls show that few issues energize voters more than fear of violent crime - even though only about 5 percent of violent crime falls under federal jurisdiction.

But the ferocity and near-solidarity of the Republicans' attack seemed to signal that they see a lot to gain - and little to lose - in challenging the president, even on an issue such as crime.

Clinton, in a Rose Garden appearance, portrayed the vote as a signal to the country that Washington can get something done. "Ordinary Americans ought to take heart," he said, calling the vote a sign that Congress has "thrown off the bonds of politics-as-usual to do the people's business."

Clinton, who had worked as hard the in past two weeks on this vote as he has on anything in his presidency, said senators "of both parties" put "law and order, safety and security" above partisan politics in the vote, and he issued a plea for continued bipartisanship.

The bill - which provides more money for police and prisons, toughens some criminal penalties and imposes a partial ban on assault weapons - had strong support among Republicans when it first passed the Senate last November by a vote of 95 to 4. But Republicans contended it was weakened and fattened with "social pork" by House-Senate conferees and threatened to block it unless changes were made, including restoration of mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes and drug transactions involving minors.

The Democrats' victory was not assured until early yesterday when Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, and Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., devised what turned out to be a successful strategy to beat the Republicans at their own procedural game.

To counter Republican demands for votes on 10 amendments to cut spending for prevention programs and toughen penalty provisions, Mitchell and Biden, after consulting with Republicans on what it would take to break the impasse, offered a single amendment to cut the spending.

The amendment would have failed, and Republicans knew it. So Minority Leader Robert J. Dole, R-Kan., rejected it on behalf of his party, setting in motion the showdown vote.

With the earlier support of Republicans James M. Jeffords (Vt.), William V. Roth Jr. (Del.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.), the Democrats began the day with 58 votes, or two short. But Dole's rejection of the Democratic offer had the ironic effect of giving Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum, his Kansas colleague, cause to bolt and vote with the Democrats. She was "disappointed that a majority of the Republican Party rejected (the offer) as inadequate," she said in a written statement shortly after the Republican decision was announced.

In the vote, Jeffords, Roth, Specter and Kassebaum were joined by Republican Sens. John H. Chafee (Vt.) and John C. Danforth (Mo.). Among Democrats, only Richard C. Shelby (Ala.) voted with the Republicans.

To show the administration's colors during the vote, Vice President Gore was on hand to preside, with his foot-in a cast following surgery for a torn Achilles tendon-propped on pillows under his desk.

After the vote, Mitchell and Biden praised the "courageousness" of the six Republicans and credited Clinton's steadfastness on the assault weapons provision as a key factor in keeping the bill alive despite its several near-collapses. Despite Republican claims to the contrary, the issue was "guns, guns, guns, guns and guns," said Biden.

But, despite the National Rifle Association's defeat on the issue, Mitchell was not ready to claim it had lost its clout. "An organization that can weild such enormous power with such an unpopular issue (defending assault weapons) cannot be discounted," he said.

Conservative Republicans expressed a sense of betrayal at the outcome. "We had the votes at 10 a.m. but not at ll a.m." after the Democrats came out with their final proposal to win over the moderates, said Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss. "The leader (Dole) felt betrayed."