THE sun was hot, and so was the subject: violent crime.
As midday heat pushed toward 90 degrees, Democrats set up a display of deadly assault weapons on the Senate lawn - ``Streetsweeper,'' ``Uzi,'' ``Beretta,'' ``AK 47.'' Looking them over, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen said solemnly: ``These weapons have no place in the marketplace.... Why should you be able to go into a gun shop and buy a weapon of mass destruction?''
Violent crime, which Secretary Bentsen claims is fueled by easy access to automatic weapons, remains the No. 1 issue with the American public. Responding to outcries, Democrats hope within 30 days to pass what they call ``the most sweeping federal anticrime bill in US history.''
It won't be easy to forge a congressional consensus. The Senate passed one bill, the House another, and now conferees must hammer out big differences, including a $6 billion spending differential.
Republicans and some liberal Democrats, uneasy with both bills, attack them as either too weak or too tough.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People lambastes the legislation as ``draconian,'' with too much emphasis on punishment. The NAACP calls the two Democratic bills ``a crime against the American people.''
Democrats insist that public opinion is on their side. The bills expand the death penalty to dozens of crimes. They both call for more prisons and more police.
The Senate also wants an assault-weapons ban, and President Clinton agrees. At a Rose Garden ceremony this week, he lifted an AK 47 after declaring: ``Assault weapons ... were specifically designed for war and have no place on the streets of America.''
Republicans, who have their own crime package, want more funds for prisons, tougher sentencing, and strongly oppose the ban on assault weapons. This weekend, Republican congressmen have called 39 town meetings from coast to coast to rally support for a stronger bill.
If they remain on target, House and Senate Democrats will resolve their differences by Memorial Day and send a bill to the president. But first, they must leap several hurdles, including disagreements over:
* The assault-weapons ban. Passed by the Senate, a ban is strongly opposed by many in the House, including the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jack Brooks (D) of Texas. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California concedes that those favoring a ban face an ``uphill battle.'' The ban remains 15 to 20 votes short in the House.
* Racial Justice Act. Republicans, led by Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, charge that the act, included in the House bill, would make it impossible for states to enforce the death penalty. The act permits death-row inmates to use racial statistics to prove that the death penalty was used against them in a discriminatory way. The Senate has opposed this concept in the past.
* Spending levels. The House voted outlays of $28 billion over six years, well above the Senate's $22 billion. The final numbers in conference are expected to be closer to the Senate level but still far above the original $15 billion envisioned by Democratic leaders.
THE variations in spending also underlie differences in philosophy between the Senate and House.
The Senate bill calls for 100,000 new police officers (cost: about $9 billion), while the House would put 50,000 new cops on the beat (cost: $3.5 billion).
Meanwhile, the House would pour $13.5 billion into new prison construction, far above the $6 billion slated by the Senate. House members argue that without enough prisons to lock up violent criminals, it is useless to hire more police.
The House also was more generous with prevention programs ($7 billion) than the Senate ($4 billion).
Despite such differences, Democrats say their legislation has seized the crime issue from law-and-order Republicans. Even a moderately tough crime bill will boost Democrats in the fall elections, they conclude.
Republicans counter that Mr. Clinton and Democrats talk a good game while quietly cutting muscle from crime programs.
As proof, they point to Clinton's 1995 budget. Despite a 21 percent rise in the crime-fighting budget, to $18.3 billion, Clinton would whack 861 positions from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and make significant manpower cuts in agencies fighting illegal drugs and organized crime.
An FBI official says no new agents have been trained for the agency since 1992, when President Bush was in office.
Ironically, Investors Business Daily noted in a lead story this week that the frenzy over crime comes at a time when the nation's crime rate has fallen for two years. One reason: More people are getting jobs as the recession ends.